Tips on Recovering from Shoulder Replacement Surgery

A bit of advanced planning and preparation before shoulder replacement surgery can help with the recovery process.

My tips for recovering from shoulder surgery

Although every individual is different, there are considerations that can be helpful for everyone undergoing this surgery.

Get comfortable with the idea of using one arm during recovery

It can be difficult to imagine not functioning without an arm until you have to. So, I really thought through activities with my arm for several weeks before surgery; from eating to driving my motorized wheelchair. My husband and I did some run-throughs of daily life activities where I tried to keep my arm inactive and asked for his help. While we didn’t think of everything (see below on “Be Ready for Surprises”), it did help with identifying tasks I could switch to my other hand or arm, or areas where I would need assistance from my husband.

Use your surgeon as a resource

Before the surgery, I did a lot of research, both online and by speaking with others who had undergone the same surgery. While the stories varied a bit, I still learned a lot about what to expect and the equipment that could be helpful. As I learned, I asked the surgeon about recommendations he had and if I should do some of the things I had learned from others. He was helpful on both fronts.

Consider renting an ice machine

First, I ended up renting an ice machine to use after the surgery. The surgeon connected me with his preferred vendor, and they delivered the machine a few days before surgery. It was great because once I came home, we could put it on, and the circulating ice helped to reduce pain and swelling. I ended up keeping it for extra weeks because it was so soothing for my injured shoulder during recovery.

Look into adaptive clothing

Next, the surgeon, in his “welcome to surgery” planning packet, suggested checking out a company that made special shirts with Velcro sleeve closures. I took a look and ordered some because I wasn’t sure how I would get into my usual clothes with an immobile and swollen arm. This turned out to be a great idea! At first, it was tricky to figure out how to get them on and off (especially when my shoulder was immobile and in a sling), but we eventually mastered it and found it much easier than a standard closed-arm shirt.

Don't forget that showering may be difficult or impossible for a while

Although no one told me, I realized right before surgery that showering would not be possible for a few weeks after surgery. So, I ordered bathing cloths and shampoo caps. Both could be microwaved to warm them up nicely, and after use would be discarded. It wasn’t easy to bathe when basic movement was so difficult, but I felt so much better after feeling refreshed by using these handy items.

I loved using my TENS machine after the procedure

Another idea was to use a TENS machine on my shoulder muscles (once I was ready to start physical therapy) to help rebuild them after the surgery. While the research evidence is mixed on its utility, there was nothing indicating it would be harmful, and the surgeon supported the idea. We actually had an old TENS from a previous surgery, so we got it out and made sure it was working and ready to go. In my opinion, it has really helped to get my muscles going, especially after the atrophy they experienced during the many years my shoulder damage kept it from moving properly.

Make sleeping arrangements ahead of time

During my research, I learned that lying down after the surgery would be impossible and uncomfortable for many weeks. Several people suggested planning to sleep in a recliner, which I would have loved, but we didn’t have one, and we didn’t have the space in our tiny condo to fit another piece of furniture.

What to do? Get creative, of course! We experimented before the surgery with some different set-up options that I could try and adjust for my comfort. I already sleep on a wedge pillow to help angle me up for easier breathing and to reduce acid reflux. Additionally, we had one of those husband pillows (the kind that sits you up in bed and has arm supports on each side). Combining these two items and other pillows to prop and support, we found a way I could sleep while sitting up to keep the pressure off my tender, recovering shoulder.

I’ll be honest; sometimes it was still harder to be comfortable, and my body would get sore spots (on my heels and tailbone) from sleeping differently and not being able to move into new positions. But it worked well enough and got me through the first few weeks when laying down was a non-starter.

Mentally prepare for physical therapy challenges

I was extremely excited during my first follow-up appointment the week after surgery when the surgeon said I would be able to start some physical therapy the next week. When I was eased out of my sling and the PT asked me to lift my arm, and my arm said “What?!” I realized it was going to be slow going. In the beginning, I had zero active movements except what could be accomplished by jerking my whole body to swing my arm. And my hand and wrist were swollen and stiff from the surgery, and also not being able to move much in the sling.

I started gradually and worked my way up (still working on it!) to more movement with light arm weights. Some items that I had or purchased for home so that I could do my therapy every day (which I recommend for the best results) include:

  • A squeeze ball or bag filled with beans to work the arm, wrist, and forearm
  • Pulleys that hang over a door
  • A stick approximately three feet long for arm lifts so the other arm can help train the recovering shoulder
  • A couple of exercise bands starting at low resistance and then stepping up one or two strengths as you progress
  • One-pound and two-pound arm weights
  • A weighted ball (around one pound)

Expect the unexpected

My, oh my! There were some things we either got completely wrong or didn’t anticipate at all. For example, the shoulder sling was so large and bulky I couldn’t sit in my regular motorized wheelchair. We had to switch to an old wheelchair and remove the armrest on that side because my arm stuck out so much. Another one: I had to sidestep into the bathroom because the door wasn’t wide enough for my bulky arm sling! And I needed a lot more personal care help as I realized I wouldn’t be able to use my surgical arm to help at all for many weeks.

All the surprises we learned to manage, and we thought of as puzzles to solve. Gradually we adapted and came up with workarounds. And as my recovery progressed, I could begin returning back to more normalcy in my activities.

Practice your patience

So here’s the thing: recovering from surgery always takes longer than we want. Whatever our hopes or expectations, we want it faster. We want to feel better faster, have less pain faster, and get back to activity faster.

This means a lot of the work is about patience. Being patient with ourselves and our bodies as we heal. In this case, bone needs to grow, and tissue needs to knit together again. Swelling needs to dissipate, and bruises need to heal. In my case, the worst of the swelling lasted well past 6 weeks, and even after 3 months, I still had some bruising left to fade. It just takes a lot of time.

I would celebrate each day as a part of the healing, and gradually I could celebrate more improvement. Like this bruise is lightening, or the swelling was leaving my forearm, or I could lift my arm an inch instead of not at all.

Treat it as a gradual progression and give your body the patience it deserves as it works to recover.

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