Surgery may be necessary to repair a rotator cuff tear. Recovery may take several months or longer and require a period of complete rest followed by progressive rehabilitation.

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Your rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons in your shoulder. This cuff can tear as a result of overuse, degeneration, or trauma. Symptoms may appear suddenly or gradually and can include pain, loss of range of motion, and weakness.

Some tears may heal on their own or respond to physical therapy. More serious tears may require surgery to repair. Here’s what you can expect after rotator cuff surgery, what recovery may look like, and how long it may take to return to your everyday activities.

The exact recovery time for rotator cuff surgery depends on the extent of damage and the type of surgery you receive — open surgery, mini-open surgery, or arthroscopic surgery.

Most people regain full range of motion and strength within 4–6 months of surgery. However, in a 2019 study involving 135 people who received arthroscopic rotator cuff surgery, the average time for full recovery was 14 months. So, recovery can vary from person to person.

Larger tears or low tissue or tendon quality may result in longer recovery times. Recovery times may also be longer for people who smoke, are over 65 years old, or do not follow postsurgical rehabilitation recommendations.

Yes. Pain is common after surgery and is part of the healing process. Your pain may be most intense immediately after surgery and ease as time goes on.

If your pain does not let up, it’s important to let your doctor know. Possible complications of rotator cuff surgery include nerve injury, infection, and re-tearing of the tendon.

If you experience increased pain, it’s important to seek medical help to rule out these or other complications.

Your doctor may prescribe a combination of medications and at-home methods to help you manage your pain.

These might include:

After surgery, you will likely need to wear a sling for 4 weeks or possibly longer. You should not drive under any circumstances while you’re wearing a sling.

Consider using public transportation, taking taxis, or enlisting a friend to help you get around in those first few weeks. It’s also a good idea to stock up on groceries, personal care items, and other necessities ahead of time.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that public transportation — such as a crowded subway or bus — could be dangerous if you get jostled, as that could re-injure your shoulder.

Your doctor is your best guide for what to do and not to do after your surgery.

However, the general guideline for recovery includes the following milestones:

Immediately after surgery

The goal is immobilization for the first 4–6 weeks. This means you should not use your arm to lift anything and should not do activities that force your elbow away from or in front of your body.

To protect your joint, your doctor will give you a sling to wear. Again, this means you should not drive until your sling is off, usually around the 4-week mark.

4–6 weeks

Your muscles are still weak from weeks of not being used. You should not use your arm or shoulder to lift or perform daily tasks just yet. Instead, your doctor will prescribe rehabilitation to begin passive exercises — ones you perform with your therapist’s help — to slowly strengthen your muscles.

Do not lie down or sleep on your affected shoulder during this period.

6–8 weeks

You may now begin doing more active exercises with your arm and shoulder. “Active” means you perform the exercises by moving your joint yourself. It’s important to keep these activities light, lifting no more weight than your physical therapist recommends.

8–12 weeks

Your therapist may now suggest you start actively strengthening your arm and shoulder muscles using added resistance. You may perform exercises in physical therapy or independently at home. It may take several months to feel increased strength.

Do not push yourself out of the bathtub or chairs by loading too much force on your joint until the 3-month mark.

During recovery, your rotator cuff tendons must reattach and heal to the bone. This requires formation of scar tissue, which can take 8–12 weeks to become strong enough. As you move your shoulder, tension within the scar tissue triggers cells to produce more scar tissue. Physical therapy helps with this process.

4–6 months

Your therapy may continue for a couple more months. While you’re regaining strength, it’s best not to push things beyond your prescribed exercises. Do not do heavy manual work such as gardening, digging, or heavy lifting during this period.

6 months onward

At this point, no daily activities may be off-limits. You may feel strong enough to move your shoulder and lift your arm without discomfort. If not, make an appointment with your doctor.

Noncontact sports are generally OK by 6 months after surgery. But you should not take part in contact sports until 9–12 months after surgery.

Rotator cuff surgery is generally successful at reducing pain and restoring strength and mobility to the shoulder joint. No matter the type of surgery, most people recover adequate strength within about 6 months. A period of complete rest followed by progressive rehabilitation is key to recovery.

If you experience increasing pain, swelling, or other symptoms of infection after surgery, make an appointment with your doctor to rule out complications.