Five Weeks Post Shoulder Surgery

I’m five weeks post surgery now! The first month was super hard but things are getting easier now.  I am allowed to sit and lay down without my sling and I started physical therapy.  I went back to my doctor today and he says I’m healing up well 🙂

What Happened?

I had arthroscopic pancapsular plication on my left shoulder.  Basically, someone threw on a kimura faster than I could say “tap.”  It hurt enough that night that my coach noticed something was wrong but I thought I would be ok in a week.  I stopped rolling for the night and iced it once I got home.  The next morning it was so painful I couldn’t type with it – moving my fingers hurt my shoulder too much.

What I Did Before Surgery

At first, I tried going to a chiropractor who had helped me through two popped rib heads (or possibly one that didn’t fully heal and then popped back out).  He recommended I get an MRI with contrast.  The MRI indicated I had a SLAP tear so the chiropractor sent me to the orthopedist.

I went to the same orthopedist who removed a plica from my knee five years ago.  My knee healed great and very quickly so I hoped my shoulder would be easy to fix too.  He took an x-ray and recommended I try physical therapy for a month.

I tried physical therapy for two weeks.  I tried really hard because everyone was telling me that recovery from shoulder surgery was painful and slow.  After two weeks of hard work my physical therapist said that I would not be able to ever have the same strength or flexibility in my shoulder without surgery.  So I went back to the orthopedist.

He admitted physical therapy was a long shot.  He gave me two options.  1) Do physical therapy for 6 months to a year, gain back as much strength and flexibility as possible, and never do contract sports or lift anything heavy again.  2) Or get surgery, be in a sling for 6 weeks, do physical therapy for 6 months, be very careful not to ever dislocate that shoulder again, but be able to do contact sports.

Interestingly, my orthopedist wasn’t too concerned about the SLAP tear.  He was worried because my shoulder kept popping out of socket.  If I pulled my shirt off over my head, my shoulder would dislocate.  I could pop it out by holding my elbow at 90 degrees, parallel to the floor, and moving my arm backward.  The surgery was to tighten the bottom half of my labrum so my shoulder would stop popping out of place.  He prescribed a CT Scan prior to the surgery to determine if it would be open or arthroscopic.

Why I Chose Surgery

The first week after my injury I couldn’t move my arm.  I had just started a new job two weeks prior and was trying to hide the fact that I couldn’t type with my left hand for a week.  I was icing my shoulder three times a day and hoping that with rest and ice and ibuprofen I’d be back on the mat in no time.

Two weeks after the injury, it still ached constantly.  I gained some range of motion back but I couldn’t move my arm more than 15 degrees behind my back and I couldn’t lift it more than 45 degrees out to the side.  I got an MRI three weeks after my injury and went to the orthopedist a week later.

Weeks five through nine after my injury were frustrating.  The pain was still constant and the only exercise I could do was ride the stationary recumbent bike.  I started physical therapy and it was discouraging to see how little strength and range of motion I had.  I made some improvement and did my exercises religiously, but I never was able to lift my arm out the the side more than 60 degrees.  By week seven I knew I needed surgery, but there were hoops to jump through before I could schedule it.

Weeks nine and ten were actually easier.  The pain had mostly gone away, which made me question if I needed surgery, but I still had made no progress in strength or range of motion.

I scheduled the surgery for one week later, which was 11 weeks and one day after my initial injury.  Never doing jiu jitsu or any other contact sport again was not an option for me.  Also, the orthopedist said that even after a year physical therapy, there was a chance if I lifted a heavy bag I could injure it again and would need surgery.  I pride myself on carrying my own heavy things as much as possible.  And my improvement with rest and physical therapy had stalled.

How Did the Surgery Go?

The surgery went well.  The anesthesiologist gave me a nerve block so my entire left arm was numb and unresponsive to me for about 24 hours.  I was out for 2.5 hours and the orthopedist didn’t have to move my bicep tendon like he was worried he would have to do.  I was a little nauseated after I woke up, but I was out of the hospital within 8 hours.

How was Recovery?

I tried to prepare.  I bought and borrowed a bunch of clothes I could put on one handed.  I bought three frozen peas ice packs so I could continuously ice.  Evan even bought me new video games so I wouldn’t go too crazy sitting still all day.  But it was hard.

I did not anticipate how helpless I would be.  I couldn’t dress myself, bathe myself, open my pills myself, make myself comfortable, or help take the dogs out.  For the first few days, I kept forgetting all of the things I couldn’t do and would get into situations where I needed help immediately. Evan was fantastic and patiently helped me with everything.

I highly recommend anyone preparing for shoulder surgery have these things ready in advance:

  • At least two ice packs – I was icing 30 minutes on, 30 minutes off for the first week.
  • A sponge on a stick for bathing
  • A pill holder that you can open with one hand – needing your pain medicine but not being able to open the bottle is not fun.
  • A jacket you can wear over the sling
  • An extra sling for showering
  • Pants with an elastic waistband.  I still can’t pull up my pants with my left arm and I’m pretty sure buttoning pants in a sling without hurting yourself is impossible.
  • Shirts with loose arms and loose shoulders.  Button up shirts are only a good idea if you have someone who can dress and undress you.
  • Slip on, velcro, or elastic shoes
  • Fill your pain medicine prescription in advance – but try half the dose first if you’re not very big.  I was prescribed 1-2 pills every 4-6 hours and there were only 5 times I took a whole pill – the rest of the time I took 1/2 a pill every 6 hours.

Week two was better.  I was in constant pain but trying to get off the narcotics.  Evan and I had fallen into a routine that was working pretty well for both of us.  I started working from home but I was still in a lot of pain and couldn’t type with my left hand so things were slow.

Week three I started back at work.  I lasted 3 hours on Monday before I was nauseated from pain and had to come home.  I cried.  Then things were easier on Tuesday.  I brought a pillow to work so I could sit more comfortably, ice, and a rolling cart to carry my stuff.  I didn’t have to go home early the rest of the week.

Week four was frustrating again.  I was hurting less but my arm wanted to move.  I could start physical therapy four weeks after surgery and I was counting down the days until I could take my sling off while sitting still or laying down.  And I could tell Evan was getting tired of driving me to and from work every day.

Week five has been great.  Physical therapy feels fantastic (and hurts but I can see progress) and straightening my arm is amazing.  I can finally type with both hands and I am mostly self sufficient.  Evan still has to help me get dressed and he has to drive me everywhere but we have a pretty comfortable routine for now.

When I’m lying down, I can lift my arm straight up to about 135 degrees and out to the side to about 90.  If you wanted to americana me (please don’t!), I would tap with my hand still sticking straight up to the ceiling.  I determined tonight that I could hold a carton of eggs in my left hand without it being too much weight (probably not the best experiment – it would have been pretty messy if I had dropped them).  I gained about 10 degrees of range in each of the physical therapy tests over the past week.

In one week I get to take off my sling for good, drive myself, and continue physical therapy.  I have been cleared to swim and use the elliptical.  I’m hoping to go back to helping with the kids’ jiu jitsu class on Saturday and maybe start some light yoga in the next few weeks.

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