18 tips I wish I’d learned before I had shoulder surgery

I recently had an arthroscopic procedure on my dominant shoulder. I decided to write this guide while I was in the midst of my recovery, still wearing The Immobilizer 24/7, because I realized I was re-inventing the wheel on a daily basis. There were so post-opmany things that could have made my life easier, if only I’d learned them in advance.

If you are about to have shoulder surgery, this guide will help make your recovery post-op go more smoothly. I am not a doctor, and these tips won’t help your shoulder heal more quickly. But they might help you keep your sanity post-surgery (or at least get your pants on more quickly).

If you’ve had shoulder surgery and have tips to add please email me or leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to the main list.

#1 Don’t try and go it alone
If you are lucky enough to have a supporting partner, prepare to write a few weeks’ worth of IOU checks around the house. You’re going to need a ride home from surgery, for starters. But that’s just where it begins.

The first two days you are going to be laid out, floating in and out of consciousness as your body tries to sleep its way through the first part of recovery.

After about a week you’ll be much more up and at ‘em, but you’ll still be pretty useless around the house (unless washing dishes one-handed is a long-standing specialty of yours). Accept the fact that you’ll be physically challenged, and start planning on ways to make it up after you’ve recovered.

If you live alone, call in some friends for the first 72 hours. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I couldn’t move the ice pump up and down the stairs in our house all by myself for the first few days, and had to swallow my pride and ask my wife to do it for me every time I wanted to relocate.

#2 Prepare and freeze food in advance
One thing we were able to predict was how challenging it was going to be to feed our family with one of the people who helps make meals out of commission. So about six weeks pre-surgery, we started making double-batches of our favorite recipes and freezing half. By the time we got to my surgery date, we had a freezer full of carnitas, soup, meatballs, etc. All we had to do was pull it out and thaw it.

If you live alone, or you don’t like to cook for yourself in general, stock up on easy to prepare (read: frozen) meals. If I had shoulder surgery when I was 25, I would have had a freezer full of frozen pizza.

#3 If you live alone, consider switching to paper plates
It’s not very eco-conscious, but if you live alone you might consider switching to paper plates for the first few days. Doing the dishes one-handed is a pain in ass. And even if you have a dishwasher, simply scrubbing food off of plates while battling the initial pain of post-op might be best avoided. Then again, maybe you’re the kind of person who likes such a thing – in which case, you can come to our house, we’ll feed you and you can do the dishes.

#4Buy slip-on slippers or flip flops & convert a pair of sneakers to slip-ons
You aren’t going to be tying your shoes alone anytime soon.  Unless you go barefoot all of the time, you are going to need to put things on your feet one-handed. Flip-flops are about as easy to put on as it comes.

I had my surgery in November, and it was too cold to wear flip-flops around the house. So we got a pair of slip-on slippers from Target for $20. Best $20 I’ve ever spent: I lived in those things for a few weeks. Don’t get the high-top, boot style slipper: they are too difficult to get on and off one-handed.

I also needed to leave the house ocassionally, so I converted a pair of lace-up sneakers into slip-ons. It should be self-explanatory, but for the sake of over-exposition: I lace a pair of shoes very loosely so I can get them on and off one-handed, and yet they still don’t fall off.

#5 Custom cut a shirt or two in advance
My surgeon sent me home with my T-shirt pulled over the non-surgery arm and my head, and just hanging over the right (operated-upon) shoulder. The consensus was that I’d figure out how to really dress myself when I got home. My surgeon also said, “Don’t take The Immobilizer off, under any circumstances, until you see me again.” Which was going to be at least four days later.

Thankfully, my buddy Ben told me to cut a T-shirt from the armpit down to the waist on the operated side. I was able to get that on and over the whole Immobilizer/ice-pack apparatus, and (mostly) cover my waist & midsection. Protip: don’t cut it all the way through the waist, just to within four inches.

#6 Get a “wedge” pillow
My buddy Ben had been through a similar surgery, and he loaned me his wedge pillow. It was an absolute necessity for the first few weeks post-op, in order to be able to sleep upright enough to keep the shoulder in a comfortable position. Now I just love the thing. I’m not giving it back.

#7 Get your hair cut as short as possible pre-surgery
You won’t be taking a shower for at least two weeks, and will probably be relegated to fake-a-bath in the sink. I usually have short hair, but I had my hair cut down to a #1 buzz cut on the sides, so I could “wash” my hair one-handed in the sink. It was one less thing to worry about.

My wife says that if she were to have surgery like this, she would find a nearby salon where she could get her hair washed regularly.

#8 Wear your PJs to surgery
I walked in to the surgery center wearing sweats and slippers. Hardly the fashion statement on the way in, but exactly what I wanted to be wearing on the way out. In fact, I had thermal underwear on under my sweats, because they are my PJs. The staff was surprised when I vehemently stated through my post-op drug haze, “Thermals! I. Want. My. Thermals on, please.” They obliged, and when I got home from surgery, all I had to do was slip off my slippers and fall into bed.

Wear whatever you plan on spending your first couple of days recovering in to your surgery. You may feel stupid on the way in, but you’ll be high as a kite on the way out.

#9 Don’t bother practicing one-handed stuff
You’ll have weeks to practice your one-handed lifestyle after surgery. Don’t bother practicing beforehand. Except: figure out which belt you can fasten one-handed before surgery, or you’ll spend a lot of time figuring it out afterwards. It took me four days to discover which of my belts I could fasten with just my left hand. It also took me four days to discover item #9, which is embarassing.

#10 Put the belt in the pants before you put the pants on
This one, sadly, took me 5 days to figure out. But once I had it, it was a massive time saver.

#11 Be prepared for everything to take twice as long
Name something that you normally do with two hands that is easier to do one-handed, (probably) with your non-dominant hand? The answer is nothing, don’t let your smart ass friends try to tell you otherwise. Everything you do in the weeks following surgery is going to be harder and take longer than you are used to.

Embrace it, for it is the path you have chosen so that your shoulder may be healthy again. I learned to do so many things left-handed that I am still doing many of them that way. Eating soup, for example.

Protip: Do not wait until the last minute before rushing in to the bathroom if you have to pee. The pressure of fumbling with your zipper one-handed as your bladder is about to explode is more excitement than you need.

#12 Audio books
Do you normally read yourself to sleep? Or maybe you like to read books during the day? I couldn’t hold a book in a comfortable way for weeks, especially lying down. Audiobooks to the rescue!

If you have a smartphone, the Audible app has a built-in snooze feature, which is awesome. I’d set it for 30 minutes every night to fall asleep to, and wind up backing up 23 minutes the next day.

#13 Typing sucks
Typing one-handed was one of the most frustrating aspects of post-surgery life. I can normally type 70 words per minute, but one-handed that number came down to about 12. I’m not exaggerating.

If your job involves a lot of typing, get yourself something that can help speed up the one-handed process. Voice recognition software, maybe. For me, it was Swype on my phone. I wound up doing all of my emails from my phone, because I can Swype one-handed (Swype is only for Android devices).

My tablet was my second choice for typing, followed (distantly) by my keyboard.

#14 Stock up on ice
You are going to be icing your shoulder 24/7 for the first week, re-filling your ice-pump machine every four to six hours (but especially right before you go to bed, and right when you wake up). We went through two to three bags of ice per day. Per day.  Hopefully you have a large freezer, and can easily store seven or eight bags of ice. If you’re like us and have a tiny freezer, you’ll need to go to the store every day to buy ice.

And by “we” I mean my loving wife.

Find a local store that has lots of it before your surgery, so you know where to send your partner or friends when you need it.

#15 Take as much time off as possible
This one seems pretty obvious, but it’s worth saying: you don’t want to be at work while you’re fighting pain in your shoulder. If you can, take at least a week off of work. I am lucky, and was able to take two full weeks off before I started doing any work. Your body will tire out easily, and your shoulder needs to heal.

#16 Take the laxatives
Oh yeah, this should have been higher. Much higher. Extremely effective painkillers cause constipation. No matter how your system has reacted to pain killers in the past, take the first dose of laxatives with the first dose of painkillers after your surgery. Please trust me on this one.

#17 Narrow down your clothing options
Those favorite button-fly jeans of yours? Yeah, you’re not going to be wearing them for at least a month. Set them aside, and make sure your possible-to-fasten-one-handed pants are all front and center. Sweats or shorts are a great call, but if you need to leave the house to go to work or pick up ice, you’ll need some pants. Make sure they are zippered.

Skin-tight T-shirts? Nah. Won’t be wearing those for at least six weeks.

Pick a few things that you know you’ll be able to do one-handed, stick to them. I lived in a blue flannel, button-up shirt. If you normally like to wear a hoodie around the house, buy a zippered one. Even once you can start taking The Immobilizer off, you won’t want to be shoving your arm through a pull-over hoodie.

#18 Don’t try to catch things
One of the most challenging aspects of life post-surgery: the instinct to try and catch things with your recovering arm. I was trying to help out in the kitchen, and dropped a jar. As it fell, I instinctively tried to catch it with my right hand. Even though my right arm was still in The Immobilizer, I managed to jerk my arm a couple of inches, causing extreme pain in my recovering shoulder.

It will happen to you. But maybe if you know about it in advance, you can try to prepare yourself to not try and catch things. It took two or three episodes of extreme pain to teach me to let things hit the floor. A habit I have not yet decided to break.

#19 Put the operated arm in the sleeve first
You’ll figure this one out on your own pretty quickly, but my physical therapist wants to save you the pain of trial and error. When getting dressed in the months post-op, always slide the operated arm in the sleeve first. 

#20 Pre-hab your shoulder & get to know your PT
Most surgeons are committed to this concept these days, and will send you for physical therapy before your surgery so you can begin to strengthen your shoulder before the surgery. The better shape your shoulder is in before the surgery, the quicker your recovery will be.

This is also important because it gives you an opportunity to build a trusting relationship with your PT before the operation. Once you’ve had the operation, the slightest movement in your arm or shoulder can cause immense pain. So can tightening your shoulder while your PT is gently moving it. You need to be able to trust them, and instant trust is hard to come by.

 

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