Most people’s recovery lasts 4 to 6 months, but it depends on the severity of your injury and how closely you follow your doctor’s recommendations.

While nonsurgical treatment can work for most cases, more severe injuries to the acromioclavicular or AC joint will need surgery to repair the joint and regain normal function in the shoulder.

If your physician has told you that an AC joint surgery might be the best solution for your injury, you’re probably curious about the recovery period.

Knowing what to expect, as well as how long you can wait before returning to work or resuming other activities can help you prepare for what comes after surgery.

While most surgeries have a general timeline for when a patient can expect to heal, individual outcomes can vary based on complications, underlying conditions, and a person’s overall health. Typically, full recovery can be achieved in 4 to 6 months.

A study from 2019 followed 54 participants and found that the median hospitalization time was 5 days, but times ranged from 1 to 22 days. Those who worked jobs that required more manual labor spent significantly more time in the hospital.

When can I return to work after AC joint surgery?

As with general recovery timelines, when a person is approved to return to work will depend on how their recovery is progressing. Likewise, the type of work you’re engaged in will also influence how quickly you can return to it.

The same 2019 study found that the average time from surgery to returning to work was roughly 13 weeks, with 52 of the 54 patients eventually returning to work. But, those with manual labor jobs required more time, sometimes as much as 15.5 weeks.

Likewise, three participants that were manual labor workers never returned to their previous jobs after the surgery.

Meanwhile, of those who returned to work, 18 experienced persistent symptoms in the operated shoulder. From the entire study group, ten people needed revision surgery, five of which were caused by early wound healing complications.

While this study is small, it emphasizes the need to take your time of rest seriously.

Returning to sports

General guidance suggests that athletes can take anywhere from 4 to 6 months before they regain full function in their operated shoulder and are cleared to return to activity.

A separate 2019 review looked at 12 studies across 498 patients and found similar issues for athletes. Of the included patients, 462 were active athletes. They found that:

  • Only 66 people that underwent AC joint surgery did not return to sports.
  • The average time to return to sports was 4 months.
  • 401 were able to achieve their pre-injury capabilities.
  • 35 patients experienced reduced performance.

The most important thing you should avoid doing after AC joint surgery is placing too much strain on the newly operated shoulder.

Most recovering patients will be encouraged to avoid lifting anything weighing more than 5 pounds with the operated shoulder during the first 6 weeks of the recovery period.

Likewise, don’t over-exert even with non-weight-bearing movements on the operated shoulder. This includes extended reaching or rotating the shoulder. You’ll usually also be urged to avoid touching the incision site or disturbing the stitches.

Depending on how you sleep, you may need to find a new go-to position. In particular, people that are side sleepers, and favor their operated shoulder, will need to either switch to the other shoulder or temporarily become back sleepers.

The best way to speed AC joint recovery is to follow your physician’s instructions.

This includes using an arm sling for the first month postsurgery to keep the shoulder immobilized. Most healthcare providers will also encourage gentle exercises, even in the early weeks to begin your strength training routine.

Don’t forget to eat nutritious meals, and if you’re a smoker consider stopping. Nicotine has been proven to slow the body’s ability to support wound healing. This can translate to a longer recovery period or even contribute to complications like frozen shoulder.

As the recovery period progresses, your exercises will continue to accelerate slowly. But you’ll still want to avoid overhead lifting or exercises that mimic this behavior in the first three months after surgery.

In the initial period, if you experience pain, use ice packs as-needed and anti-inflammatory medication to control symptoms.

People that engage in manual labor and athletes are encouraged to undergo physical therapy or occupational therapy as well. This will aid in rebuilding your range of motion as well as strengthening the joint.

Most people won’t have AC injuries severe enough to require surgical repair. But for those that do, expect your total recovery timeline to be anywhere from four to six months.

During this time, you need to be diligent about engaging in physical therapy to regain strength and proper range of motion in your shoulder.

Likewise, understand that in some cases if you have a manual job, or are an athlete, it can take even longer for you to regain full function in your operated shoulder. Following your physician’s recovery instructions, as well as not overexerting yourself during your recovery is critical to avoid further injury.