Nearly every type of shoulder surgery can now be done arthroscopically with small incisions, which is great news for anyone who needs the minimally invasive procedure. Like the surgery itself, recovery from arthroscopic shoulder surgery should be a lot quicker than conventional surgery.
"Shoulder arthroscopy is a tremendous advance in the way that we do things in that it allows us to gain access to all parts of the shoulder using small incisions and allows us to view parts of the shoulder and work on parts of the shoulder with a camera and specialized instruments," Samuel A. Taylor, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, says.
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By contrast, a conventional or "open" operation involves making a single large incision to expose the area that needs repair, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
"Aesthetically it has a better appearance because you have small incisions as opposed to bigger incisions. It's typically less painful because the soft tissues around the shoulder are not disrupted or injured in a similar way that the larger open incisions can be," Dr. Taylor says. "The other advantage is the infection rates are much lower because you're operating through smaller incisions and running sterile fluid throughout the shoulder throughout the case."
Arthroscopic surgery can be used for relatively simple procedures that "clean up" inflamed, damaged tissue as well as complex operations like shoulder stabilization and rotator cuff repair, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
Speeding Up Recovery
The key to a faster recovery is to allow yourself time to heal properly. Here are tips from Dr. Taylor and Alberta Health Services in Canada:
Skip the lifting. Right after surgery, you may have swelling in your hand and arm. Your arm might also feel numb or like you're unable to move it, but this will go away within 12 to 24 hours. Don't lift anything that weighs more than a plate or drinking glass for 2 to 3 weeks, and avoid activities that require repeated movements of your affected arm.
Manage your pain. Full recovery from arthroscopic shoulder surgery can take months, and pain and discomfort can persist for several weeks, depending on the complexity of the procedure. Your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Be sure to take any pain medications exactly as prescribed.
Reduce inflammation. "Icing to reduce the amount of inflammation and swelling in the area is extremely helpful," Dr. Taylor says. Ice the affected area for 10 to 20 minutes every 1 to 2 hours, and be sure to place a thin cloth between the ice or cold pack and your skin.
Find a comfy sleep position. Getting plenty of sleep will help you heal faster, but after shoulder surgery, it can be difficult to lie down comfortably. A reclining chair may be a better option for your first few weeks at home.
Follow the rules on your sling. You'll likely need to wear a sling to immobilize your shoulder, and your doctor will tell you how long you'll need to use it. This varies depending on the surgery and the patient, Dr. Taylor says. For example, you might need a sling for four weeks after shoulder stabilization surgery, but six weeks after a rotator cuff repair. You can usually take off the sling to bathe and get dressed. However, it's not safe to drive until you're out of the sling, per AAOS.
Put in needed rehab time. Your doctor will recommend shoulder exercises to do at home. The point is to strengthen your shoulder and restore your range of motion. Rehabilitation after some procedures may involve working with a physical therapist. Sticking to the rehab plan your doctor recommends will help you recover from shoulder surgery faster and regain your strength.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Shoulder Arthroscopy”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Shoulder Arthroscopy”
- Alberta Health Services: “Shoulder Arthroscopy: What to Expect at Home”
- Samuel A. Taylor, MD, orthopedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York City
- AAOS: "Can I Drive In a Sling?"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.