Recovering from Rotator Cuff Surgery

Shoulder to Shoulder – Rotator Cuff Surgery

He came toward me from across the room at the funeral parlor. A huge man, easily 250 lbs. Barrel-chested, close cropped hair, goatee, leather jacket. He wasn’t anyone that I knew. But then I saw that he had his arm in a large cushion-like sling, just like the one I was toting around. “Another rotator cuff victim,” I thought to myself.

And sure enough, he was. We gripped each other’s hand my left to his right. Brothers in pain. Shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity with the hurting masses who have undergone this same shoulder surgery.

“Buddy!” he said, his giant shadow covering me. A bigggg man.

I nodded acknowledgment. We grinned at each other “It sucks, doesn’t it?” he said, pointing at my giant foam-filled sling.

“Sure does,” I replied. And we talked.

Experts that we now were, we discussed the little idiosyncrasies of rotator cuff surgery. Like the misery of the first two days. Like being forced to keep your arm in this huge sling contraption resembling the overstuffed arm of your grandmother’s couch. A contraption that forces your arm against the side of your body, and keeps it pointed straight out in front of you just a little thing to keep you from ripping out those nice shiny screws holding your tendon against the bone. We reminisced fondly about those miserable nights of short sleep in the Laz-E-Boy chair. And the subsequent weeks when you finally move back to your bed, still only able to lie on your back, with your arm jutting straight in the air. This turns your blanket into a neat tent, allowing easy access for the cats to crawl under and further torture your sleep.

After we aired all that commiseration, I noticed him staring at my arm. “Ya know, that’s a nice sling you have there,” he said, somewhat jealously. “A lot nicer than mine.”

“Well,” I responded modestly, “how many holes did they cut into your shoulder?” An orthopedic surgeon will typically tell you he makes “two small incisions, the size of a pencil head” to operate on rotator cuff injuries arthroscopically. One hole for the miniature camera; the other to actually work on the tendons. That’s the theory anyhow.

“I got three holes,” he replied.

“Four holes here.” I responded. “Maybe you get a better quality sling as the hole count rises?” I offered.

“Could be,” he said. And we both laughed. He then sauntered off to pay his respects. We were, after all, at a wake.

As is typical, my repaired shoulder is the one I use most, the right side. So normal use of my right hand has become next to impossible. Survival requires using the other extremity to function. In the ensuing weeks, I can’t say that I mastered the use of my left arm. But I have learned to eat left-handed, without spilling too much food into my lap. And I can almost print like a third grader. I can even take a one-armed shower – technique is the key. Just for fun, try washing your armpits with one hand. Harder than you would think, huh? I can drive with one hand, slap a coat over my shoulder, put my socks on, even pull off a pretty mean left-handed nose blow. But it’s all pretty awkward.

After a two-week recuperation period, I was able to return to work. Oh, I still wear my huge couch sling and I have to make sure I don’t get whacked in the shoulder. But my condition has made for good conversation and it’s a great ice breaker. In reply to the usual “what happened to you?” question, I had initially been telling folks the whole story, after which they always wanted to know the exact incident that led to this debilitating injury. They usually flexed their own shoulders as I responded, probably wondering if those little pains they sometimes feel there might just be a rotator cuff problem. The mind feeds right into these things.

After 168 inquiries about my situation, I grew tired of repeating the same old story. So if someone now asks me what happened to my arm, I’m just as apt to answer “Nothingwhy do you ask?” Or “It’s just a flesh wound”. Or “I hurt myself bowling”. I’m open to suggestions on further unique replies. It makes conversation so much more fun.

For those contemplating rotator cuff surgery, consider your options carefully. If you really need this, you’ll know, believe me. Try physical therapy first, because the therapy after surgery makes me feel like I’ve been spending time at Mistress Matilda’s Pain Dungeon – even though my shoulder feels great after I finish each therapy session.

It’s now been four weeks since my surgery, and I’m confident that within three months, I’ll be able to raise my right arm above my waist. Maybe even tie my shoes. Within six months, I should be able to lift that arm over my head, comb my hair, brush my teeth, all much more comfortably than I do now with the awkwardness of my left hand. I have so much to look forward to! As does my 250-lb friend. And three million other folks