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Shoulder Surgery Recovery: What I've Learned So Far

As my much anticipated shoulder surgery has come and gone, there are several things that I've learned during the first week of recovery.

You can't count on having time to prepare post-operation.
I thought I had a good plan. I thought I'd have time to cross off the last few post op and Christmas preparations from my list. Of course I had a long list that needed accomplished the day before surgery, including buying a few more Christmas presents, planning for school Christmas parties, buying groceries, buying the items I would need after surgery (ice packs, medications, etc.), and cleaning the house before nearly two weeks of helpers and guests would be visiting or staying with us. Two nights before my surgery my two oldest children tandem vomited or had diarrhea all night long. Absolutely disgusting. But this meant that my final day before surgery was spent washing sheets, emptying puke buckets and staying home with three young children, 2 of whom where very sick with the flu. No errands or shopping for me.

MRIs aren't always correct.
According to my MRI, I had been told that I had a torn rotator cuff and needed rotator cuff repair. So, accordingly, I researched rotator cuff surgery and recovery until I was blue in the face and I knew absolutely everything about the type of surgery I'd be having and what to expect post surgery. If you know me, you know I like to be prepared. I even watched many videos of the actual surgery being performed. This helped ease my anxiety some.

Well imagine my surprise when I woke up from anesthesia to find that I did not need rotator cuff surgery after all. In fact, my rotator cuff "tear" was really only about 10-15% damaged, and more frayed than torn really. I, obviously under anesthesia, never spoke with the surgeon after surgery, but my husband did. No one gave him any printed materials, and the doctor was using strange medical terminology, so my spouse really couldn't remember what was said to him about what type of surgery was performed. Something about "debride" maybe, and that the recovery from the surgery wouldn't be as bad as what we thought.

And that was it. I had had surgery but didn't really know what was performed exactly.

So for the first 5 days I had no idea what I was supposed to do. How careful should I be? What kind of pain is normal? What restrictions should I be following?  It wasn't until my five day post operation appointment that I learned the true diagnosis. Turns out I had a raging case of Synovitis in my joint which required "limited debridement and a partial synovectomony." So basically instead of stitching/anchoring my rotator cuff, they cleaned out the portion of it that was frayed and actually removed a portion of my synovial joint cushion. This is great recovery news because it means only 3 weeks off of running and only a month of PT after that. I guess I'll have to get back to you on the success of the procedure. From what I have found online (see links above), this procedure was a way of fixing the symptom of pain and stiffness, but probably not the problem itself. Only time will tell. 

All the (synovial) tissue in these images was removed. Everything
was supposed to be white, not red, so this was all taken out. This chronic inflammation was apparently the culprit of my pain and stiffness these last 7 months.

It is possible to choke almost to literal death on a sip of soda.
I came as close to dying as I think I ever have within just a few minutes of stepping into my house post-surgery. Prior to my surgery I had agreed to a nerve block which was administered through my neck. This was supposed to really kick in a few hours post surgery and was intended to offer significant pain relief for the first day while at home (my surgery was at 7:30 AM). After it started to wear off I was told that I could start my wonderful prescription for Percocet likely in the evening. Sounds manageable right?

First of all, the nerve block didn't work well for me. Although groggy, the last thing I remember the nurse telling my husband as we were leaving the recovery room to head home was something along the lines of, "I don't think her block worked very well because she should be completely pain-free and she is ranking her pain at a 5-6 so start those pain meds as soon as you can." Great, lucky me.

Well no one told me that a side effect was that in about 15% of patients a complication is that the throat and layrnx can also go numb which can make breathing, swallowing or talking very difficult. So you can imagine my surprise when I tried to digest a much needed Percocet and found that I couldn't swallow. Instead the fizzy soda went down the wrong pipe and the pill sat in the back of my dry throat. Panicking ensued. No worries, I'll just cough. Nope, I don't have the ability to cough either. Okay, I'll cry for help. Oh wait, my layrnx doesn't work- I can't get any sound out. Luckily my husband was there and although we were freaking out and not sure what to do, tears streaming down my face, I was able to calm down and focus on breathing. Eventually, I somehow got the Percocet down my throat (basically relaxing enough to just pour it down with water). My Dear Husband sat with me a few hours, jumped up every time I tried to let out a whimper of a cough or squeak of a word, and basically watched me constantly, afraid I was going to stop being able to breathe if I fell asleep.

I guess it was a good thing the nerve block didn't work well because after a few hours, my neck, head and face started to have some feeling again. If you want to sort of know what the numbness was like, imagine Novocain for a dental filling times a million- and in your entire head and throat. Not very comfortable when you know it is only supposed to be making your shoulder numb.

We probably should have gone to the ER, but a quick online search revealed that this complication should only last a few hours so we toughed it out. I am a little disappointed I wasn't warned of this at all, but we got through it.

Let others help.
So many wonderful people have called, emailed, texted, stopped by and included me in their prayers. My mother- and father-in-law came to watch the kids and care for me the first few days after surgery. After a few days they drove the kids back to Iowa where they and my parents are taking turns watching them so I can recover childfree for a few more days. So many more people sent flowers or brought food over to us since I am physically limited for a few more weeks. It is hard for me to just sit and watch my husband as he washes the dishes, makes meals, washes the laundry, etc, but he has not complained once. NOT ONCE. I am so thankful for him. He insists that I do nothing so that I can let my shoulder heal.

Face-time with my kiddos a state away while I recover.

You will have restrictions.
So at my 5 day post-op check up I was told:
DO normal daily activities like brushing my teeth and making a snack as I can with my right arm. If I have pain stop immediately.
DO keep taking over-the-counter pain/inflammation reducers as needed.
DO the PT mobility exercises given to me three times per day.
DO keep an eye on the area where the stitches were removed, one site is a little irritated.
DO NOT wear my sling much anymore.
DO NOT lift anything heavy, at all (!!) with my right arm for at least 2 more weeks.
DO NOT walk or run for two more weeks, but DO use an exercise bike if I absolutely feel I cannot take a few more weeks off, but only if I am feeling great and have NO pain whatsoever (I'm not pain free yet so I'm holding off on this one).

I forgot to ask about driving but online says 1-2 more weeks off so I'm going to wait until my next follow-up appointment in 2 weeks. I'm not taking prescription pain medication much anymore but I do not want to irritate my joint at all so waiting is good.

Shoulder surgery is painful.
I can't imagine not having prescription pain medication for the first few days after surgery. As far as my current pain level (5 days after surgery)... I have 2 extra strength Tylenol in my system and I still have a constant nagging, discomfort in my shoulder (that is while resting, definitely more when I use it in certain angles). I'd say maybe a 3 with medication, definitely still there. I am thinking about taking 1/2 or 1 Percocet when it wears off so that I can get some things done around the house with less pain.

That's it for now, I'll keep you updated in another week.

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