5 Exercises for a Better Recovery After Shoulder Surgery

Since the late 1990’s, shoulder surgeries have risen by nearly 10 times.  The most common reason for surgery is shoulder impingement.  Impingement occurs when your rotator cuff, biceps tendon, and/or bursa are pinched or irritated.  Irritation occurs between the bones of your upper arm and shoulder blade.  Subacromial decompression is an arthroscopic surgery that removes or shaves away bone.  This creates more space for the irritated structures in your shoulder.

Shoulder surgery exercises
Pinching of the bursa and rotator cuff with shoulder impingement

Recovery from arthroscopic surgery is a long process.  Soreness lasts anywhere from a few weeks to several months.  During your recovery, it is important that you move and exercise your shoulder.  Inactivity leads to a stiff or frozen shoulder.  Also, the muscles around your shoulder need retraining in order for your arm to function properly.  This article shows you several important exercises to do right after your shoulder surgery.

Physical Therapy Improves Your Recovery After Shoulder Surgery

A 2016 study published in the Physical Therapy Journal, investigated the effectiveness of physical therapy after subacromial decompression surgery.  A total of 126 patients were split up into 2 groups.  One group received post-surgical rehab supervised by a physical therapist 2 times per week for 8 weeks.  The other group received no formal physical therapy after their surgery.

Three months after surgery, the physical therapy group showed greater improvements in pain and function.  These improvements were even more evident in the physical therapy group 1 year after surgery.  Therefore, this study proves the short and long-term benefits of completing physical therapy after your shoulder surgery.

3 Keys to Your Recovery After Shoulder Surgery

Your shoulder will feel sore, stiff, and heavy immediately after your surgery.  This is normal.  However, the right behaviors and actions will speed up your recovery.  Here are 3 things to do during the first 1 to 2 weeks after surgery.

  1. Use Ice. The cold will keep your pain and swelling under control.  About 10 to 20 minutes of ice is all you need each time. For the first week, ice 3 times per day. Don’t overdo it.  Gradually reduce the frequency of icing based on your pain levels.
  2. Gradually Remove Yourself From the Sling. A few days or even a week in the sling is going to be fine. However, you do not want to become dependent on it. As long as your rotator cuff was not repaired, you will want to slowly (not all at once) remove yourself from the sling.  Each day, remove your sling and get comfortable with your arm hanging by your side.  While walking, relax your arm and let it swing naturally.
  3. Gently Start Moving Your Arm. Taking dedicated time each day to exercise your shoulder is important.  Keeping your arm in a sling or anchored across your body will lead to a stiff or frozen shoulder.  You want to avoid this at all costs.  The exercises that follow in this article are a great starting point.  Perform them daily during the first month after surgery.

Shoulder Pulley Exercises

Pulley exercises are great for early rehab because they allow you to get your arm overhead with assistance.  You can order pulleys online or your therapist may provide you with a set.  They easily fit over any door.  Just pull a chair up.

Start with your involved arm resting down towards your lap. Your uninvolved arm starts overhead.  Pull down with your uninvolved arm.  Keep the elbow of your involved arm straight as you move it overhead.  Your good arm does most of the work.  Hold the stretch for 5 to 10 seconds.  Perform 20 to 30 repetitions.  Many people feel better when they do the pulleys several times per day.

Wand-Assisted External Rotation

When your shoulder stiffens after surgery, you will first notice difficulty turning or twisting your arm.  This occurs when you reach behind your head or behind your back.  Therefore, it is important for you to start moving your arm into external rotation early after your surgery.

Begin on your back with a small pillow or towel roll under your upper arm.  Hold a cane, golf club, or similar object with both hands.  Use your other arm to passively rotate your involved arm out to the side.  Maintain the elbow of your involved arm at a 90-degree angle.  Pause and hold the position for 5 to 10 seconds.  Avoid exercising through pain and avoid overstretching the shoulder into excessive external rotation.

Low Row Isometrics

The muscles in the back of your shoulder are very important.  They work together to move and position your shoulder blade so your arm can function properly.  If your shoulder blade muscles are not working in sync, you will put excessive stress on the front of your shoulder.

The low row exercise is a great way to begin retraining your lower and middle trapezius muscles.  Stand with your hand resting on a tabletop, chair, or counter.  Your arm does not move during the exercise.  Keep it relaxed.  Focus your attention on moving your shoulder blade diagonally down and back towards your opposite back pocket.  Hold this contraction for 5 to 10 seconds and do 20 repetitions.

Push-Up Plus

Your serratus anterior is another important muscle that moves and positions your shoulder blade.  This muscle is activated when you raise your arm fully overhead or when doing a punching motion.

Get on your hands and knees with your weight distributed evenly.  Keep your elbows straight.  Gently lift your upper back straight up towards the sky.  Your spine moves away from your shoulder blades.  Hold this contraction for 5 to 10 seconds and do 20 repetitions.

Band Scaption to 60 Degrees

After a few weeks of doing the previous 4 exercises, you will begin some light resistance work.  Raising your arm in the scapular plane against some light resistance activates your rotator cuff.  The scapular plane is a natural position for our arms to function in.  It is not the same for everyone.  It is somewhere in between raising your arms straight out in front and straight out to the side.  Pick an angle that is comfortable for you.  Start, with small arm raises to avoid pain early on.

Stand with a resistance band anchored under your opposite foot.  Hold the other end of the band with a thumb-up grip.  Maintain a straight elbow.  Raise your arm to about chest level and hold 3 to 5 seconds.  Start with 2 or 3 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.  As you become more comfortable with the exercise, increase the number of reps to 15 or 20.

Get Started Early After Surgery

Shoulder surgery rehab
Manual therapy improves shoulder mobility after surgery

Subacromial decompression surgery is essentially a “clean-up” of your shoulder.  No tendons or ligaments are repaired.  Therefore, you are clear to begin moving your arm right away.  Starting early and remaining consistent are your keys to success.

Working with your physical therapist will get you started off on the right foot.  BSR has been helping people recover from shoulder surgery since 2007.  Give our office a call to schedule an evaluation with your physical therapist.


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