The amount of pain an individual feels after shoulder surgery can vary depending on the type of repair. Taking pain medication and icing the shoulder can help.

Approximately 53,000 people in the United States have shoulder replacement surgery each year.

Although surgery can lead to a healthier, pain-free future, you’ll likely experience some discomfort after surgery as you heal.

It’s important to talk with your doctor about their recommendations for your pain management after shoulder surgery, as every case is unique. We’ve gathered some information to help you feel more prepared to handle what lies ahead.

Depending on the type of shoulder surgery and amount of repair work involved, pain may be expected for weeks or even months following the procedure.

Your doctor should be able to give you an estimate of what is typical for your particular surgery, so you know when pain is extending longer than expected.

However, it’s important to remember that everyone’s experience will be different, and pain can vary based on a range of factors.

It’s common for many shoulder surgeries to involve cutting, drilling, and suturing tissues. This can cause pain and inflammation of the tissues. Additionally, because the shoulder and arm are typically immobilized for several weeks following any shoulder surgery, stiffness and pain can develop from lack of use.

Although it is not super common, there is a risk of nerve damage during shoulder surgery. This can make recovery take longer and increase the amount of pain a person feels.

A 2019 study found that rotator cuff repair surgery is more painful than other outpatient shoulder surgeries. This was based on how people rated their pain in the hours after surgery, though, so the exact reasons why more pain was perceived still require more research.

There are multiple ways your doctor may help you treat any pain following shoulder surgery.

Depending on your procedure, you may receive regional anesthesia (also called a shoulder or nerve block) before the procedure. This should help with pain during the procedure and for a short time after. Additionally, your doctor may inject local numbing medicine during surgery.

Your doctor will likely prescribe medication following shoulder surgery to block pain and help lower inflammation:

  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • ibuprofen (Advil)
  • celecoxib (Celebrex)
  • naproxen (Aleve)
  • meloxicam (Vivlodex)

The specific medications may depend on your medical history.

Applying cold packs frequently to the shoulder can also help reduce swelling and pain. (Ice packs can usually be wrapped in a towel and placed over the incision 4–6 times a day for 20 minutes each time.)

Immobilizing the shoulder as directed by your doctor is important for making sure the shoulder heals properly. This is essential for reducing pain immediately after surgery and preventing it in the future.

While failed surgeries are rare, they are possible.

Symptoms of an unsuccessful or failed shoulder surgery can include:

  • continued pain and swelling
  • joint instability
  • stiffness
  • muscle spasms

An unsuccessful surgery may not be immediately clear. It can take more than 4–6 months, possibly even a full year, following surgery to fully recover.

Try to remain patient and work with your physical therapist afterward, allowing the tissues to heal. Doctors may also be able to diagnose an unsuccessful surgery through X-rays and MRI scans.

Symptoms of nerve damage after shoulder surgery can include:

  • swelling and inflammation
  • tingling
  • numbness
  • burning

Nerve damage may cause an individual to have moments when it feels like an electric shock is shooting through their shoulder or arm. This pain may extend for months or even years after the shoulder tissue appears to have healed.

Depending on your procedure, you may receive regional anesthesia before the procedure that should help with pain during the procedure and for a short time after.

Before you head home from the hospital, your doctor may also prescribe highly effective, powerful pain medications such as codeine, hydrocodone, or oxycodone to take when you feel pain. Note that these medications do come with some warnings and have a higher risk of dependence, so it is important to speak with your doctor if you have any concerns about taking them.

In addition to these prescription pain medications, you may be advised to take ibuprofen to help reduce inflammation.

It’s important to follow any wound care directions and attend any necessary follow-up appointments for stitch removal or progress checks. Try to avoid using your immobilized arm besides exercises prescribed by your doctor or physical therapist.

When to seek medical attention

Contact your doctor after shoulder surgery if:

  • bleeding soaks through the dressing and doesn’t stop with pressure
  • pain medication doesn’t offer relief
  • your arm swells
  • your hands and fingers change colors, feel cool to the touch, or tingle and feel numb

Be sure to contact your doctor right away if you have any signs of infection, such as a fever or yellow-green discharge from the wound.

Was this helpful?

Some pain is to be expected after shoulder surgery, but medications, ice, and rest can help manage it. If pain becomes intolerable or you have any signs of infection, it’s important to reach out to your doctor right away.

If pain persists longer than expected or reappears after improving, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor. It may be a sign of an unsuccessful shoulder surgery. Your doctor can determine if additional diagnostic testing is necessary and work with you to develop a treatment plan.