Practical Tips for Recovering from Rotator Cuff Surgery

Although this is a bit off-topic from quilting and sewing, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of our discoveries in the recovery process (especially since one of my listeners has this surgery coming up!).  My husband (DH for the sake of brevity) had the surgery almost two weeks ago, so he has one more week of immobility left.  He had a 35% tear in his rotator cuff, which is quite large, but the doctor was able to make the repair arthroscopically.   He has 6 small puncture wounds in shoulder, and got the stitches removed from those in his post op visit about 5 days after surgery (by day 4 they were itchy). He has this sling for his recovery.

These tips are not for the mechanics of getting your shoulder working again- spoiler alert! I’m not a doctor - but they might help life run more smoothly afterwards.


Hygiene is by far one of the biggest issues in terms of small annoyances after the surgery. Until his post-op visit to remove his stitches, DH did not take a shower. He sat in the bathtub to wash his bottom half, and washed his face, and largely left his torso unwashed to avoid getting the sling wet. After the stitches were out, we modified some old canvas belts (it took two to get the right length) for him to use as a sling in the shower.

Without the ability to lift one of his arms, he’s not able to clean under his good arm, so I lend a helping hand to clean that armpit. If he’s feeling adventurous, I’ll try to slide the washcloth under the recovering arm too, but it is rather painful still. Desperate times call for desperate measures, however, and that ain’t nothing compared to what I put him through during childbirth!

He wasn’t able to use his regular solid deodorant (without me helping), so we bought a can of spray deodorant. Not our favorite environmental impact to make, but this one time it helps him feel more independent. I will use it to spray a shot under the recovering arm as well.

Just to add insult to literal injury, we’ve found that a week and a half after surgery, his sling is starting to stink. While he has it off to take a shower, I blast it with Lysol and Febreze and that’s helped.


Although the recommendation was for a button down shirt during this time of immobility,  he was only able to button one or two buttons around the sling so his stomach ended up hanging out.  To solve this problem, we took an old t-shirt of his and cut it all the way up the side and under the sleeve for the arm the sling is on. This meant he could put the t-shirt on normally on his left arm and over his head, and the right sleeve could be tucked (gingerly) around his arm inside the sling.  The sides of the shirt were then tucked between the foam pad on the slide and the side of his body to prevent them from gaping too much.

With only one hand, he had difficulty with his regular khakis so he’s worn sweatpants with an elasticized waist, or his pajama pants while we wash his sweatpants.  We’ve got a total of two modified t-shirts and two pairs of sweatpants.

He also wasn’t able to wear a normal jacket, so we modified an old zip-up vest. The problem was the gaping of fabric from t-shirt on the side, so for the vest I cut open the shoulder seam and sewed on velcro. This way he can put his left arm through the vest like normal and slide the open shoulder on the right side up under the sling. Then he zips it closed like normal, and then closes the velcro over the right shoulder so he’s got some article of clothing covering every part of his torso.


DH has switched back and forth on a couple sleeping positions. The first few weeks of immobility he needs to sleep sitting up. He tried just sleeping in the recliner in the living room, but had better success the first few days by piling up 3 pillows on the arm of the recliner on his left side (the good side), and face planting on them so his recovering arm was hanging in the sling. Something about having it hanging made it not tense up so much and was less painful.

Since those first days, he’s stuck with either laying back in the recliner, or laying somewhat on his good side in the couch. In either case he’s still semi-upright, but the quality and duration of sleep is aggravating.

What to Have Ready After the Surgery

  • Waterproof bandages (for an arthroscopic surgery)
  • Ice packs - we made these of equal parts rubbing alcohol, water, and crushed ice in a ziploc.
  • Spray deodorant
  • Modified shirts
  • Elastic waist pants
  • Lysol or Febreze to de-funk the sling
  • Stool softener, aka Colace, if you are taking narcotic. NOTE: this is NOT the same as taking fiber caplets; extra fiber will only compound the problem.
  • Old belt(s) or fabric to use as temporary sling in the shower- test out the length BEFORE the surgery (which is something we didn’t do).
  • A spare empty cup in the car for the ride home from surgery. DH’s was done as outpatient surgery, and he was still feeling nauseous from the anesthetic on the drive home. He didn’t actually barf, but it was comforting to have it just in case.

UPDATE, 3 Years Later:

My husband has his surgery three years and a half ago, and he has full function back.  It aches when it’s storming, but that’s not unusual for this type of injury. Looking back, yes, I’m glad he did the surgery, but I’m not sure he is.  It took about a year for full recovery.  The severe pain receded within a month or two of surgery itself, but there was a constant ache as he worked the physical therapy to gain back his range of motion.

About 18 months after surgery, he was pretty frustrated that it was still aching with one “catch” when he tried to reach over his head (particularly frustrating since his job is physical and requires this motion frequently).  He was playing in the pool with our kids when one of them jumped on him and he reached up to catch our son and felt a giant ripping sensation in his shoulder. After a moment of panic, which I could see on his face, he rolled his arm around and said, “Wow! It doesn’t catch anymore!” As best we can guess, the ripping was the final bit of scar tissue from the surgery tearing free. Since that time, he’s had full range of motion with only an ache when it’s raining.

21 Replies to “Practical Tips for Recovering from Rotator Cuff Surgery”

  1. thanks for all the tips. sorry for the poor punctuation, surgery was yesterday. i had a sizeable tear as well, and had to have the big girl surgery with the longest recovery. thanks to your earlier podcast i altered a few shirts by cutting them up the side and adding some velcro closures. i also made a couple shower sings out of some old valances i had thrown in the goodwill pile. tomorrow is shower day and i cannot wait [pretend those are shouty caps]. my boys had long grown out of that rainbow fabric anyway. had to go back to the doctor today to get my sling adjusted and stronger meds [rough night]. i’ll be sending my husband out for spray deoderant and soft stools, lol. and whoever invented netflix has my undying gratitude.

    1. Thank you for your in depth advice.I will go out and get some Lysol and febreze i’ m unsure about cutting up his t shirts.

  2. I’m going August 1 for mine and I am pretty nervous about afterwards with bathroom and washing hair, etc…..

    1. Pulling on pants and underware is difficult. You want loose pants. My cousin lost one arm in Iraq and showed me how to pull the crotch of my panties to one side just as I sat on the toilet. You can actually handle all three female functions down there and the panties slide back into position when you stand back up. I’m still using this method with two good hands as it saves me 20 or 30 seconds pulling down and then pulling back up every time I use the toilet.

  3. PAM & HEAD

    Thank you for the tips! My shoulder surgery (hemi-athroscopy) isn’t until the middle of November. I’m embarrassed to say I know very little about it, but I’m collecting a list of questions for our local VA hospital.

    Again, thanks!

    Western North Carolina

  4. I came across your website while looking for suggestions for rotator cuff recovery. My surgery is at the end of the month but I’m trying to get as much ready as possible. Your suggestions are great and I will add them to my list. I am terrified and this lets me think that I am at least a little in control, and it keeps my mind occupied. Thanks so much.

  5. Had surgery oct 30th. Sub abcromial decompression… 2 full thickness tears sewn back together. 3 arthroscopic incisions… And a 3″ incision along the top of my shoulder. Got out of hospital on Halloween looking like ” Frakenshoulder” lol. First few days brutal. Having sling issues. I fear it’s not giving the support its supposed to. Don’t see surgeon for 2 weeks. Any suggestions would be appreciated!!!!

  6. This was all very helpful. My husband is on day 4 and I feel so helpless. He’s so uncomfortable and tired. We will try the 3 pillow trick tonight.

  7. Two weeks out from major shoulder repair. Nerve block helped out for about three days, then stayed on pain meds, don’t be shy with them, they help with sleep and that is the key to recovery. Recliner for about 10 days and then “the bed”!!!!! Off heavy pain meds and just OTC relief. Also as noted earlier staying in the sling is golden!!!

  8. Thank you all for the tips and support you have offered in embarking on this rather scary, unknown territory. My husband has just past the four-week mark into his recovery of rotator cuff and bicep reattachment surgery and I want to pay it forward with some tips of my own. The first two nights were awful because neither of slept for more than an hour at a time; we were exhausted! No rest, no recovery. We do not have a recliner but do have an oversize chair with an ottoman, it was okay, not great. On day three I pulled the 6″, dense foam mattress that we use on the lower bunk of our grand kids trundle bed, put that on the guest bed, supported by other pillows, at a 45 degree angle and it worked great! Sleep, blissful sleep at last!

    Following the suggestion to use a couple of belts to create a ‘shower sling’, I used a fabric bathrobe tie - measured on my husband prior to his surgery - and knotted it to fit his bent arm for use in the shower. Worked fine along with an empty, plastic two liter pop bottle placed under his arm to support it at the right angle.

    To provide coverage and comfort in dressing, I cut an old T-shirt from the bottom up thru the armpit, cut off the sleeve, then stitched about 10″ of Velcro made for fabric use to each side of the cut shirt. I made three of these so he could have one on him, one in the hamper, and one clean.

    We followed the suggestion to keep on schedule with taking the pain meds and it works. You do not want the pain to become excruciating, so keep a log of what you have taken and when as it can become overwhelming to keep it all straight!

    As I work full-time and could not be home other than the first couple of days to help my husband, I made a different breakfast casserole each weekend that he could single-handedly cut and reheat in the microwave. This gave him something filling and more hearty to eat than cold cereal or a sandwich (and made me feel better about it too!).

    Four weeks later, we can both say in hindsight, we expected the worst and all-in-all, it wasn’t that bad. Go easy on yourselves and remember your first concern needs to be taking care of the patient and the caregiver!

    Good health!

  9. Thank you SO much. Just got my honey home, settled, and fed after rotator cuff surgery. I was wondering how I was going to help him “bathe” and what he was going to wear during our snowy winter days to cover his belly!

  10. My surgery is in 6 days, appreciate all the tips. I live alone so will be challenged, but am looking forward to getting the use of my arm back!

  11. I am so glad I found this. I don’t have a rotator cuff tear (at least we don’t think I do!) just ac joint impingement and some bicep tendon damage so I’m having arthroscopic surgery in two weeks. I work as a surgical schedular at a hospital and have booked this procedure hundreds of times and never thought about the recovery until now. I injured my shoulder 18 months ago so it’s time to suck it up and get the surgery but I’m not looking forward to the post op period.

  12. I’ve had each shoulder done. I was fit and strong before surgery tho 56 y.o. at first surgery, 59 second. The most difficult thing I encountered was moving around in bed without being able to put both hands down behind my butt to scoot myself in/out, side to side, and forward and back. If you can, strengthen your triceps and lats as much as you possibly can on your non operative side. It will make a big difference in your mobility. When you get to PT postoperatively, dig deep and work as hard as you can, even if it makes you cry! Don’t miss an appt, and make every minute count while you are there. If you are given exercises to do at home, DO THEM faithfully. If you don’t maximize your PT, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Doing everything you are asked/told to do in PT will make a big big difference in how well you heal and how quickly you are able to regain strength and flexibility. It does take many months, but it can be done. Above all, don’t quit PT “because it hurts” ! Oh, and I too had sizeable tears.

  13. I will be having surgery on April 6th. I have a 25 year old broken collar bone that has never given me any trouble. That is until I tore my rotator cuff. I have full thickness and a completely detached tendon. I’ve had other surgeries before so I’m ok with all that. My husband had this surgery and as his caregiver, I have a good idea of what to expect. And he does too, so he’ll be a great help to me. Thanks for the tips. I’m thinking the recliner will be the way to go and I’ll be super dedicated to the physical therapy, especially since I am going to Hawaii at the end of September. Gotta make sure I can swim! Also, the altering of the shirts will be very helpful. I’m a young 52 year old mother of 4 grown children and Grandma to two grandsons. 3 weeks and counting. My thoughts are “fix it ” or cut it off “! I can’t wait to get my arm back. Thanks again.

  14. Thanks for your post on this topic….and all the others that have added their comments! My surgery is next week and I’m trying to get as readied for it as I can. Thankfully my husband will be with me full-time to help through this ordeal. It’s been three years since your husbands surgery…..please tell us that it was all worth it and he’s glad to have had the surgery. If you, or any of the other readers/commenters can reply to this question I would really appreciate it…….my surgery is scheduled for August 18th ….. Have travel plans to Hilton Head (no golf 🙂 - just walking and relaxing) for Oct 15th……is this really feasible? Will I be able to enjoy the trip two months after surgery? Thanks for any feedback on this. I want to be realistic but it’s a trip that’s been planned and I’d love to go.

    1. Hi Deb - I’ll add an addendum to the post to give a follow up three years later. I think at 2 months post surgery, you can walk around okay, but make sure you take your pain meds with you and stay on top of your physical therapy! That will make all the difference in the long term.

  15. Thanks for the reply Pam…’s the unknown about the recovery that’s raising the anxiety flag 😏

  16. I’m getting ready for the 4th shoulder surgery that my husband is facing. For him in the surgeries past, he’s had the larges sized button up shirts and the elastic waist jersey pants or warm up pants. I get him the footie type socks so he can put them on without having to pull up regular socks and his tennis shoes are pre-tied so he can slip them on and feel more independent. For the larger button front shirts, I make a trip to my Goodwill store or check out eBay for cheap, yet nice shirts for him to wear. I will have to check out cutting the side of a t-shirt and sewing on Velcro.

    I also, make him padding that slips on the strap from his sling that goes around his neck. If I can find a baby bumper pad, I cut it down and make a rectangle piece about 10-12 inches long x 4-5 inches wide and lay the strap in it and wrap the padding around the strap and secure it. This way his neck is not rubbed raw. Keep the scrap baby bumper pad. As the first one gets dirty, you may need to make another one.

    Keeping remotes close by to the patient is also handy. If you have a lamp in the room they’ll be in, plug the lamp in an outlet remote and give the remote to the patient. They may like the light on or off at times, without getting out of the recliner, especially if you’re trying to sleep. P.S. If you loose a remote, check inside the sling.

    Also, if you have a flat pillow, take it with you on the day of surgery or on any car rides. Position it in front across the patient so the seatbelt does not come across their shoulder that’s had surgery. The seatbelt will rest against the pillow, instead. A thick towel could also work.

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