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Physical Therapy After a Rotator Cuff Repair

“Why is it important to have physical therapy after rotator cuff repair?”

No one wants to hear that they need surgery, especially if the recovery process is going to entail a period of immobilization, which will cause joint stiffness and muscle weakness. If you’ve been told that you need a rotator cuff repair, you are probably wondering if you’ll have to wear a sling for a period of time afterwards and what kind of impact that will have on your mobility and strength. The answer is each surgery is different and every surgeon has different rehab protocols, but most doctors will recommend that you wear a sling for 4-6 weeks, depending on the severity of the rotator cuff tear that was repaired. As a result of being immobilized for that period of time, your shoulder will most likely become stiff and weak compared to what it was like before the surgery. This is where physical therapy becomes imperative to help restore your shoulder to its premorbid state.

Your doctor may even recommend that you start PT during the time you’re still wearing the sling. Many people worry that this will “undo” the surgical repair, but if the rehab protocol is followed closely and only passive motion is performed, early PT will get you on the road to full recovery a little faster. During this early phase, the PT should only stretch your shoulder himself/herself and not allow you to move your arm on your own, unless otherwise specified by your doctor. After the sling has been discharged by your doctor, he or she will let you know when it is safe to start raising your arm above shoulder level and when you can safely return to lifting objects with some weight to them.

During the course of your PT treatment you will typically go through 4 phases:

  • Phase 1-passive range of motion only

  • Phase 2-active assisted range of motion (using your other arm, a wall, or a table to stretch out the surgical shoulder)

  • Phase 3-active motion (raising your arm on your own)

  • Phase 4- strength

The duration of each phase will depend on the severity of the tear and the particular protocol your doctor wants to follow. In summary, physical therapy plays a very important role in the recovery process after a rotator cuff repair, because it facilitates the restoration of the mobility and strength you had in your shoulder before the rotator cuff tear.

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