A week ago I had shoulder surgery. I’ve been having issues with my left shoulder for over a year.
The Story of my Long Road
I don’t know what initially caused the problem. I don’t remember any accident or anything, but I remember I started having shoulder pain after workouts, starting in either late 2021 or early 2022. At first it wasn’t a big deal. It was just one of those “middle age aches” that normally go away in a week, and so I kept exercising normally. But by May it hadn’t gotten any better, so I talked to my primary care physician about it. She didn’t think it was the rotator cuff, and felt I had a problem with the bicep tendon on that side. So that’s what she treated me for. But those exercises didn’t really help.
Fast forward several weeks from May 2022 to July 2022, and I saw a shoulder surgeon recommended by my regular doctor. He thought it was a rotator cuff problem, and ordered an MRI. The MRI confirmed it as a partial tear of two of the tendons that make up the rotator cuff.
From July 2022 to May 2023, I tried all the non-surgical approaches to fixing this – steroid injection, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) treatment, and lots of physical therapy. I got a second opinion. But nothing made the shoulder pain go away. So my last resort was surgery. That eventually got scheduled for June 2.
I had a pre-op appointment with the surgeon, and he thought it would be a pretty straightforward procedure. Normally, recovery looks like this: one week off work, six weeks in a sling, and six months of PT. But since my damage was minor, he thought I could just plan for four weeks in the sling.
The Day of Surgery
So, last Friday I had the arthroscopic rotator cuff repair surgery. I didn’t realize it beforehand, but part of the pain management for this is a nerve block on the whole arm, which affects some of the side of the head and chest, too. I showed up to start the pre-op process about 9:30, went into surgery about 11:00, and was taken to the recovery room about 12:30.
It was weird not being able to move my arm. Nothing like that has ever happened before. I would try to move it but it just stayed there limp.
Anyhow, after waking up a bit and getting some crushed ice to suck on and the most delicious chocolate pudding from the nurses, I felt a little more human again. In reality, the pudding was probably just some institutional food service brand, but since I had nothing to eat or drink for about 18 hours – it was heavenly to me.
I woke up with a headache, probably due to not having any caffeine that day yet, so Brooke ran off to get me something from a nearby Starbucks. The PA who worked on me with the surgeon gave me some photos of what had been done and said it went well. He ran through the things to do and not do. He said the nerve block could take anywhere from 12 to 48 hours to wear off, but it’ll probably do so at 2:00 AM. I thought at the time he was kidding, like, “Murphy’s Law says it’ll wear off when you’re least prepared.” I was wrong. Later the surgeon came by and quickly said hi. I remember him mentioning something like “Yeah, you really needed that.”
Brooke took me home and strapped me into the ice therapy machine and kept me on my schedule of meds. At first, there were a lot of meds to take. They wanted me to take Tylenol and Advil as a baseline for the pain, oxycodone on top of that, and aspirin to help prevent blood clots. Plus my regular morning and nighttime pills. So we had a little notebook to keep track of when I took what, since they were all on different schedules – take these every 4 hours, and these every 6 hours, and these every 8 hours, etc.
That night, I tried to sleep in the bed. But then, between 2 and 3 AM, the nerve block wore off and the pain was intense. Turns out the PA wasn’t joking, and his estimate was right on the money! I needed to get back on the ice therapy pronto, and it was set up next to the couch in the living room. So Brooke set me back up with that, and fed me a pain pill.
That was when I learned my first important lesson about recovery: The ice therapy machine is a life saver. It does more to reduce pain than the pain medicine does. I wish I would’ve had one of these before.
Here’s a funny side note about the ice therapy machine. Brooke initially bought it for her aunt, who broke both arms in the course of a couple years and had major pain issues. But the assisted living facility where she lives wouldn’t let her use it, because they weren’t willing to keep it supplied with ice for her. So it just sat in a closet for a couple years, until I needed one. So it was a hand-me-down. But even though I got it for free, it would easily be worth the $150 to $200 that these things cost on Amazon.
Here is the one I have. It’s not the model I would have bought for myself, but it’s good. It’s chilling my shoulder out right now as I type this, in fact. https://www.amazon.com/Cold-Therapy-System-Large-Shoulder/dp/B08MQ7SGBJ/
Oh, and here are the photos they took during the surgery. These things just looked like planets to me, but once I watched the video (see below) a couple of them made more sense.
The Next Week
Each day, I continued to get a little better, and learned to adapt to life with just one working arm. My operated arm was supposed to be remain in the sling 24/7. So I mostly wore sweat pants and baggy shirts and my one pair of slip-on shoes. I can’t do buttons or tie my shoes one handed. Big milestones were:
- first shower after surgery
- first time taking off and putting on my sling by myself
- first time dressing myself
- first time making espresso with one arm
Also, as soon as I realized that the bulk of the pain control was coming from ice and not from the oxy, I switched from oxy to tramadol. They seem to be about the same for pain, but I really, really hate the side effects of oxy – being loopy and having bad constipation.
Instead of trying to sleep in the bed, I’ve been sleeping on the couch. That way, I can wake up and run the ice therapy machine in the middle of the night without disturbing Brooke.
Follow Up at One Week
By Thursday, I felt like I’d made pretty decent progress, and it was time for my one week follow up appointment. The surgeon and PA briefly looked me over and asked a few questions. They left us to watch a video that shows the procedure they did on me. It didn’t totally make sense on the first viewing in the doctor’s office, but I found the same video on YouTube and now it makes more sense. It’s pretty cool technology. There’s this special device made specifically to fix one of the problems I had.
The surgeon said that once he got into the shoulder, he saw the damage was worse than it had originally looked on the MRI. So that explains why the less invasive things I had tried didn’t work. Also, as a result, instead of being in the sling for four weeks, I’m back to the normal six weeks. Oh well.
Big Lessons So Far
If you happen to be considering shoulder surgery, here are the things I wish I had known beforehand but didn’t.
- Definitely get an ice therapy machine. There are several models on Amazon for $200 or slightly less, and they’re worth their weight in gold.
- The ice therapy does more to relieve pain than pain pills.
- Make sure you have plenty of baggy clothes in advance that don’t require buttons or ties, because it’s impossible to tie a bow one handed and difficult to do buttons.
- Buttoning blue jeans one handed is incredibly hard, especially when they’re a little snug because you have been eating more than exercising.
- There are a ton of YouTube videos that cover all this stuff. The ones that have been most helpful to me are about how to shower after shoulder surgery and how to dress and undress after shoulder surgery. Watch these ahead of time if you can.
Adios for now. I start physical therapy the week after next, and I’ve been told to expect a long road to recovery. But I’m normally a pretty compliant patient, so I have high hopes for a good eventual outcome.
ps. My next blog post may be written by AI. See if you can tell the difference.