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Using your shoulder after surgery

Alternate Names

Shoulder surgery - using your shoulder; Shoulder surgery - after

What to Expect at Home

You had surgery on your shoulder to repair a muscle, tendon, or cartilage tear. The surgeon may have removed damaged tissue. You will need to know how to take care of your shoulder as it heals, and how to make it stronger.


After surgery, your arm will be in a sling or an immobilizer. Wear the device at all times, unless the surgeon says you do not have to.

  • It is ok to straighten your arm below your elbow and move your wrist and hand. But try to move your arm as little as possible.
  • Your arm should bend at a 90° angle (a right angle) at your elbow. The sling should support your wrist and hand so that they do not extend past the sling.
  • Move your fingers, hand, and wrist around 3 to 4 times during the day while they are in the sling. Each time, do this 10 to 15 times.
  • When the surgeon tells you to, begin taking your arm out of the sling and let it hang loosely by your side. Do this for longer periods each day.

If you wear a shoulder immobilizer, you can loosen it only at the wrist strap and straighten your arm at your elbow. Be careful not to move your shoulder when you do this. DO NOT take off the immobilizer all the way unless the surgeon tells you it is ok.

If you had rotator cuff surgery or other ligament or labral surgery, you need to be careful with your shoulder. Ask the surgeon what arm movements are safe to do.

  • DO NOT move your arm away from your body or over your head.
  • When you sleep, raise your upper body up on pillows. DO NOT lie flat. You can also try sleeping on a reclining chair.

You may also be told not to use your or hand on the side that had surgery. For example, DO NOT:

  • Lift anything with this arm or hand.
  • Lean on the arm or put any weight on it.
  • Bring objects toward your stomach by pulling in with this arm and hand.
  • Move or twist your elbow behind your body to reach for anything.

Your surgeon will refer you to a physical therapist to learn exercises for your shoulder.

  • You will probably start with passive exercises. These are exercises the therapist will do with your arm. They help get the full movement back in your shoulder.
  • After that you will do exercises the therapist teaches you. These will help increase the strength in your shoulder and the muscles around your shoulder.

Consider making some changes around your home so it is easier for you to take care of yourself. Store everyday items you use in places you can reach easily. Keep things with you that you use a lot (such as your phone).

When to Call the Doctor

Call your surgeon or nurse if you have any of the following:

  • Bleeding that soaks through your dressing and does not stop when you place pressure over the area
  • Pain that does not go away when you take your pain medicine
  • Swelling in your arm
  • Your hand or fingers are darker in color or feel cool to the touch
  • Numbness or tingling in your fingers or hand
  • Redness, pain, swelling, or a yellowish discharge from any of the wounds
  • Fever of 101°F (38.3°C), or higher
  • Shortness of breath


Burkart SL, Post WR. A functionally based neuromechanical approach to shoulder rehabilitation In: Skirven TM, Osterman AL, Fedorczyk JM, Adadio PC. Rehabilitation of the Hand and Upper Extremity. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2011:chap 83.

Warren RF. Shoulder arthroscopy. In: Rockwood CA, Matsen FA, Wirth MA, Lippitt SB, Fehringer EV, Sperling JW. The Shoulder. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2009:chap 20.

Review Date: 11/26/2014
Reviewed By: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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