Five Things I’ve Learned While Recovering From Shoulder Surgery
1. Stay away from shoulder surgery forums.
I did NOT follow my own advice here. My intention was to educate myself on mobility and ice machines, which slings were the most comfortable, etc. What I got was horror story after horror story leaving me thinking that instead of surgery, a better option might be to gnaw off my own arm. I was left filled with anxiety and stress weeks before surgery and I learned absolutely nothing that was useful to my situation.
There are many people who use forums as a dumping ground so they can let the world know their opinion on why their surgery went horribly, terribly wrong. Topics include anything from ‘This surgery almost killed me’ to, ‘I opted for the spinal block and it ruined my life!’ Granted, there are some threads that contain helpful advice – tips on how to find the most relief from the ice machine to advice on clothing choices that will allow you to dress yourself using one arm. Unfortunately, you have to read through all of the terrorizing titles in order to find the few useful ones that might help.
If you DO decide to read through the forums (because, obviously, you want to be 100% prepared for anything, right?) just remember that a) you don’t know know the health background of the people writing, b) you are assuming that every person sharing their story is 100% telling the truth (yes, people do lie on the Internet) and c) those who have successful recoveries generally aren’t the ones who come back to write about it. They simply get better and move on with their lives, which generally makes for a boring story.
So, keep those things in mind when you find yourself thinking that what has happened to one person might happen to you. Just like every person is unique, so is their situation.
2. Don’t hold onto expectations during your recovery.
Before my surgery I asked when I would be able to paint again. My surgeon said, ‘Oh, I’d say within a week you’ll be picking up your paintbrush again.’ Fantastic, I thought. That’s my target goal. However, when he left the room his nurse promptly said, ‘I’m going to have to disagree with that. You are not going to be in any position to use your arm that soon and shouldn’t expect to return to painting for a good month.’ Okay – well, a month isn’t so bad…THAT’S my new target goal!
It was nearly two months before I could hold a small brush in my hand and even then, my arm was so weak I could only manage painting for a few minutes at a time.
I was unaware of this fact, but once the shoulder is open and the surgeon can see what he/she is dealing with, it’s not uncommon to find something else that needs tended to such as old tissue or other minor tears. In my case the surgeon found that my shoulder was dislocated, partially frozen, and I had a shoulder blade that for some unknown reason had begun tipping upward, putting pressure on the muscles above and causing them to atrophy. When I awoke I was stunned to learn this new information, but what I was even more concerned with was the fact that I had three fingers that were numb to the touch. This was definitely NOT what I had signed up for. It took awhile, but learned that my recovery had made a deal with my body, not my mind. No matter what I wanted, I could only do what my body was capable of doing – no more, no less, and that had to be good enough.
3. Have a plan in place for these three things: where you’ll sleep, what you’ll wear, how you’ll compensate with your opposite arm while you recover.
Sleep: my doctor casually mentioned that I might want to sleep in a recliner for the first few weeks. I didn’t fully appreciate the meaning of that suggestion so I will share my opinion on this first. You will NEED to have a comfortable recliner to sleep in for at least the first four weeks post-op simply because no other position will be comfortable. I tried stacking pillows in my bed to resemble that of a recliner but it is NOT the same. Your shoulder needs the support of a firm back; it hurts less when the shoulder is elevated. Borrow one, buy one, rent one. You will not regret it.
Clothing: Prepare to look like a hot mess for the first couple of weeks. Embrace it – you’ve just had major surgery. Men will have it easier – just go shirtless for the first couple of weeks, or slip on a tank top or loose t-shirt and pants with elastic. Women will have it a bit more challenging. Bras are not an option, so prepare to wear loose tops that you can slip over your head (search YouTube for videos on how to put shirts on using only one arm) and wear pants that require no zippers or buttons. If you’ve got cute hats, wear them. Showering won’t be an option for the first several days and styling your hair with one arm will be a challenge. It can be done, but you’ll have more important concerns than trying to look pretty.
Using your opposite arm: a few weeks before surgery, start practicing daily tasks with your good arm – brushing your teeth, combing your hair, shaving your face/legs, eating, etc. Mastering those few things will just give you less to worry about post-surgery.
4. Be very careful when using prescription pain medication.
Opioid narcotics (Vicodin, Percocet, Codeine, etc) are excellent pain management drugs, and trust me – you will need a pain management plan. However, these medications are known for causing constipation. I’m not talking ‘mild discomfort’ constipation, but severe ‘everything literally stops moving’ type of constipation. These drugs are a major player for the perfect storm. You’re trying to rid your body from the anesthesia, you’re in pain and you’re not moving very much- three things that, together, will cause constipation anyway. Top that off with Opioid narcotics and a small annoyance can quickly turn into a visit to the Emergency Room. If you had ANY issues with constipation before your surgery, you will most certainly have them after. Talk with your doctor, have a plan in place and make SURE that plan is working effectively.
5. You DESERVE the most amazing, outstanding, kick-ass physical therapist in your town. Find him/her – DO NOT SETTLE for anything less.
This surgery has caused more complications than I ever could have imagined. I had to face the brutality of physical therapy without the use of any pain medication because my body couldn’t tolerate them. Those first several weeks my therapist had to manipulate my shoulder in ways that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy and he remained steadfast when I swore at the top of my lungs.
Six weeks post-op I was told that my shoulder was building up excessive scar tissue, making recovery more difficult. My therapist was there when I broke down; he was compassionate but refused to allow me to feel sorry for myself and reminded me that this was MY path. I had to play the cards I was dealt and just keep fighting.
Eight weeks post-op my shoulder had re-frozen – a terribly heartbreaking blow for me. With each lousy setback, my therapist was right there to pick me up, convince me that I was tough enough to handle it and set me back on course.
You will spend a good deal of time with your physical therapist after your surgery; therapy is CRUCIAL to your recovery. Find a good provider. It is THAT important.
…….so, where am I now?
I’m currently 3 months post-op. My shoulder is still re-frozen and I am learning to deal with the chronic pain that still accompanies my recovery but I AM recovering. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a husband that understands me and friends that give me the gift of patience as I ease my way back into Living. I am painting again, creating some of the best works of my career. I spend a lot of time reminding myself what it means to be in the present moment. Change is inevitable – I am not the same that I was yesterday and tomorrow I will be different than I am today. Accepting what currently ‘is’ is what’s getting me through.
I’ll wrap things up with a share of one of my latest paintings from my Power Animals of the Planet series. Thanks for your thoughts as I continue to recover.
~~Black Panther symbolizes determination, will, and tremendous patience. She teaches us to be comfortable with darkness, for within darkness, light can be found. Trust that all will be well. Confront your fears. Embrace your inner strength.
Be Like Panther.~~