Recovery from rotator cuff surgery can take up to 6 months and involve physical therapy to help restore strength and range of motion in the shoulder.

Rotator cuff surgery is an orthopedic procedure to repair a torn tendon in the shoulder. Tendons are tough, thick cords that attach muscle to bone, and you have four in your shoulder:

  • subscapularis
  • supraspinatus
  • infraspinatus
  • teres minor

You may need rotator cuff surgery if nonsurgical treatments, such as physical therapy and rest, have not successfully relieved pain or restored range of motion to the tendon.

During surgery, damaged tissue is removed and the tendon is reattached to the upper arm bone.

Let’s discuss what it’s like recovering from rotator cuff surgery, including what you can expect during recovery and tips for managing pain.

Recovering from rotator cuff surgery can take anywhere from 4–6 months.

After rotator cuff surgery, you’ll usually wake up in the intensive care unit, where you’ll stay for a few hours.

You may feel slightly disoriented when you wake up due to the effects of anesthesia. You may also feel some pain. However, your nursing team will administer pain medication as needed.

Once stable, you can start drinking clear liquids like water and begin eating solid foods if you have no complications.

Your healthcare team will likely advise you to start moving around as soon as possible to prevent blood clots from forming.

You will typically go home a few hours after surgery, when the anesthesia effects wear off.

Before being discharged from the hospital, your doctor will make sure that your pain is managed and that there are no signs of infection. You will receive instructions on how to care for yourself at home and what exercises you can do to help with recovery.

Immediately after the procedure, you can expect to feel some pain and discomfort in your shoulder. Your initial pain after the anesthesia wears off may feel like pins and needles.

Your doctor may prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.

You may also apply ice packs to reduce swelling and inflammation during the day and before you sleep.

After arthroscopic surgery, you may have tiny incisions covered with a large bandage. Instead of stitches, you may have small adhesive strips to hold the skin edges in place and water-resistant coverings so you can bathe and shower. If the bandages get wet, you’ll need to replace them to prevent infections.

In the case of a mini open incision, you may have dissolvable stitches. The ends of these stitches will need to be trimmed after 10–14 days. Your doctor will schedule a wound examination during this period to trim the adhesive strips and dissolvable stitches.

You may have trouble sleeping well for the first 2 weeks after surgery. You need to protect your shoulder to make sure it heals properly. You may have more pain lying flat on your back, so your doctor may recommend sleeping in a reclined position, such as in a recliner chair.

You’ll also need to sleep with your sling to restrict your shoulder from moving. To protect it, consider placing pillows between your body and arm, and behind your elbow.

After surgery, it’s vital to maintain a well-balanced diet, full of protein and whole foods to aid healing. Drink lots of clear fluids like water.

As always, it’s better to avoid sugar and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates become sugar in the blood, and sugar has strong links to inflammation, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Too much inflammation delays healing, which can negatively affect your recovery.

To help your shoulder heal properly, therapy will progress in stages.

For the first 4–6 weeks, you will need to keep your arm immobilized and use a sling. Once your doctor determines it’s safe to do so, you’ll work with a physical therapist to improve your range of motion. They will support your arm and move it in various positions.

After 4–6 weeks, you will gradually increase your arm movements. At 8–12 weeks, your physical therapist will start strengthening exercises.

After rotator cuff surgery, it’s essential to follow up with your medical team. Depending on your type of surgery, you may need to make an appointment for a postoperative visit 7–10 days after your procedure. At this appointment, your doctor will check your incision and examine your arm.

Your doctor may also recommend regular follow-up appointments 4–6 weeks after surgery to monitor your progress and make sure you are healing properly.

After surgery, avoid:

  • doing strenuous or high load activities
  • getting dehydrated
  • lifting, pulling, or pushing with the affected arm
  • reaching overhead or behind your back
  • sleeping on the side of your operated shoulder or stomach

Contact a doctor if you see any symptoms of a complication, such as:

  • pain or discomfort that doesn’t improve with rest or medication
  • swelling in the shoulder area that doesn’t decrease
  • redness or warmth around the surgical site
  • fever over 100.4°F (38°C)
  • drainage from the incision site

The recovery timeline for rotator cuff surgery can vary, but it typically takes 4–6 months.

First few days after surgery

Immediately after the procedure, you might experience some pain and swelling in the shoulder area. Your doctor will likely prescribe pain medication to help manage these symptoms.

1 month after surgery

You should be able to move your arm more freely and begin physical therapy exercises prescribed by your doctor or physical therapist. You may still experience some discomfort during activities like reaching overhead or behind your back.

2 months after surgery

You should be able to perform most activities of daily living with minimal discomfort. However, it’s important to continue with physical therapy exercises to regain full range of motion and strength in the shoulder.

4 months after surgery

You should have regained nearly all of your range of motion and strength in the shoulder area. You may still experience some discomfort when lifting something or reaching overhead.

6 months after surgery

At this point, you should be able to perform all activities without discomfort or limitation in motion or strength.

Here are some frequently asked questions about rotator cuff surgery.

How much time off work should you take after rotator cuff surgery?

It depends on the nature of your work and how fast you heal. According to research from 2021, many people return to work about 8 months after surgery, though you may be able to return much sooner if your job isn’t strenuous.

How long after rotator cuff surgery can you sleep in a bed?

You can sleep in a bed immediately. Generally, it’s recommended to sleep in an incline or semi-reclining position after surgery.

How soon can you move your shoulder after rotator cuff surgery?

During the first few weeks after surgery, you may be advised to keep your arm in a sling and avoid strenuous activity. After that, your doctor will recommend physical therapy to help you regain strength and mobility in the shoulder.

How painful is rotator cuff surgery recovery?

The recovery process after rotator cuff surgery may be painful, but the amount of pain varies from person to person.

What is the fastest way to recover from rotator cuff surgery?

The fastest way to recover from rotator cuff surgery is to follow your doctor’s instructions and do physical therapy exercises as prescribed. It can take 4–6 months for a full recovery, but this timeline may vary depending on the severity of the injury.