6 Do’s and Don’ts After Shoulder or Wrist Surgery

By Jessica Migala |

This post-op plan can help you recover faster.

shoulder or wrist surgery

Once your surgeon has given you a shiny new shoulder or fixed up your broken wrist or torn rotator cuff, you probably expect them to hand over a prescription for pain meds, an icing regimen, and a few exercises to follow.

But there's more to bouncing back than icing and stretching. In fact, there are some post-op pitfalls that can put your recovery on pause, says Greg Hartley, P.T., D.P.T., president of the American Physical Therapy Association's Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy.

To keep your healing on track, be mindful of these do’s and don’ts.

Do: Start Exercising

You probably had a couple of sessions with a physical therapist before you were discharged. That’s not enough, says Hartley.

Book standing weekly appointments with a physical therapist, who will work within the limitations of movement outlined by your surgeon.

During the initial phase of recovery, which is generally the first six to eight weeks post-op, your physical therapist will lead you through a series of exercises designed to preserve range of motion, stretch the area, and maintain strength, says Hartley.

For shoulder recovery, these might include the following:

Pendulums: Stand behind a chair, about arm’s length away. Grab the back of the chair with your good hand and bend at your hips. Let your affected arm hang straight down, keeping it relaxed. Use your body movement to let your arm swing freely from front to back, side to side, and then in circles (clockwise and counterclockwise).

Dowel stretches: Hold a dowel (a broom handle, cane, or towel will also work) with both hands at waist level. Push the affected arm out to the side and back. Or hold the dowel horizontally behind you and gently press your arms up and away from your back, taking care to not lean forward.

For wrist recovery:

Wrist bends: Flex your affected wrist up, keeping your fingers straight and your thumb extended. Hold for two or three seconds, then flex down for two seconds. Next, slowly move your wrist from side to side.

Along with these site-specific movements, make a point to take at least one daily walk.

Don’t: Overdo It

Following shoulder surgery, expect to have several months of restrictions on your range of motion. These red lights are unique to each patient, says Hartley, but in general, they may include the following:

  • Not raising your arm above 90 degrees
  • Not lifting anything heavy, like grandkids or bags of groceries
  • No overhead movements, which includes putting on a shirt over your head
  • Not using your arm for daily tasks—a real bummer if this is your dominant arm

Your mobility won't be quite so limited if you've had wrist surgery, but this extra freedom may lure you into to doing more than you can realistically handle. Heed your doctor's advice on driving or even going back to things like your regularly scheduled volunteer or group activities.

Studies show it's best to wait six to eight weeks before you get behind the wheel. You need this time to rebuild your range of motion. Plus, your reaction time will be slower.

And don't forget the fatigue factor, adds Hartley. Every surgery takes its toll. Your body will consume a lot of energy just healing. Give yourself the space to take an extra nap or two-and say no to party invites until more time has passed.

Do: Think Strategically

To overcome the movement restrictions, you'll have to develop strategies to perform tasks in a different way. Women may want to switch to bras with front closures, for example. You'll probably want a handheld showerhead to make bathing easier.

And if your dominant limb is the one that was repaired, now's the time to become ambidextrous. Practice brushing your teeth, signing your name, and opening packages with your nondominant hand.

Don’t: Be Too Proud to Ask for Help

Chances are your friends and family are going to come through with home-cooked meals and the familiar refrain, “Call if you need anything.”

Don't just politely nod and say, "Will do!" Actually lean on them. People really do love to help others. So don't hesitate to ask a pet-loving pal to walk your dog, or if it's okay to tag along on your neighbor's next shopping trip.

If you need help getting dressed or with personal hygiene tasks—as is sometimes the case in the early weeks following shoulder surgery—get recommendations for home health aides from your doctor, your health plan, or the hospital’s home care team.

Do: Keep Up With Your PT

Six to eight weeks into your recovery and you're feeling like a new kid again (well, almost). But now the real work begins, says Hartley. This is the period when your PT will pull out the weights and resistance bands and transition you to strengthening exercises.

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One move Hartley uses with many shoulder patients is the shoulder raise. Here's how to do it.

Shoulder raise: Holding a light dumbbell, raise your arm (elbow straight) in front of you until it’s in line with your shoulder, or as high as you comfortably can, then lower.

For his patients recovering from wrist surgery, Hartley often focuses on exercises meant to prevent falls. Why? “The most common reason for a wrist fracture is a fall,” he explains. “Rehabbing your wrist is important, but the wrist is the symptom of the problem. The underlying problem would be the fall.”

He says he often does some detective work with patients to figure out what lead to the initial fall and break before drawing up an individualized balance improvement program.

Learn how to minimize your risk of falls at home here. Plus, check out more tips for recovering after a fall here.

Don’t: Give Up!

"The recovery after surgery can be fairly lengthy," says Hartley. "It's important to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally-you're in it for the long haul."

It's not uncommon to have a low mood during recovery, he adds. But if you're having a hard time managing your emotions, bring this up with your doctor. In one study, older adults who received counseling following joint-replacement surgery reported lower levels of pain and improved mood, compared with those whose post-op care did not include therapy.

To keep your spirits up, Hartley suggests building in "moments of joy" during your day. Continue doing activities you love-even if that means making a few strange tweaks or relying on a partner. Love to fish? Go for it, just make sure to invite a friend who can help you cast the line.

“Use the extra downtime you’ve gained by having to take some time off for recovery by tucking into a new book, taking walks in a local park, or sitting on a bench in the sun on a nice afternoon,” he says.

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