How long does it take to return to normal after shoulder surgery? Will your shoulder feel completely normal again? I address those concerns in my latest Ask Dr. Geier column.

Moping in Mt. Pleasant asks:

I am about six months out from shoulder surgery, and I’m doing pretty well. It took a lot of work, but I have gotten back to tennis, and I’m playing pretty well. My motion and strength are improving, but my shoulder still doesn’t feel normal. Is this what I should expect? Or will I ever get to where my shoulder feels like it did before I got hurt?

The time it takes to return to normal after shoulder surgery is an excellent question. First of all, it depends on the nature of your specific shoulder surgery and injury and what findings the surgeon noted when he or she was in there. Having said that, I think there are a few points that are worth mentioning.

Goal of surgery

First of all, the goal of most sports medicine surgeons when they operate on a patient is to get that patient back into whatever activity that he or she likes to do. I’ve never understood the rationale of surgeons who automatically shut patients down and tell them that they can’t do a specific activity any more. That’s not why I went in the sports medicine. Fortunately it’s an extremely rare situation when I have to tell someone they can’t compete in a certain sport again. Sometimes I have to temporarily hold them out of a particular activity and allow them to try other sports or activities, but almost never have I had to completely hold someone out of the sport for good.

Tennis player tries to return to normal after shoulder surgery

Return to the sports and exercise you want to do

Whatever the injury is, my goal is to try to get the patient doing whatever it is he or she likes to do. Obviously if an injury is the type that prevents a person from getting back to sports, surgery is often required if rehabilitation alone will not achieve that goal. The goal with surgery is to fix the problem permanently so that it will not become an issue when that athlete gets back to sports. The surgery and subsequent rehabilitation process can take many months, but return to sports is still the ultimate goal.

Time for return to sports

As I said earlier, the time expected to return to sports depends on the type of surgery performed. We have reasonable expectations of how long the rehabilitation process after a particular surgery takes, so we can give a realistic expectation of the number of months it will take to get back to competition. For instance, for a shoulder labral repair, the physical therapists and I will usually tell the athlete to expect that it will be 4 to 6 months after the surgery before he or she is medically cleared to return, depending on the sport.

Time to return to normal after shoulder surgery

The problem is that there is a difference between being medically cleared to return to an activity and the time it takes for the athlete to actually be able to do that activity normally. Athletes tell me all the time after knee surgery that they can run, cut, pivot, and jump using their repaired knees, but it takes a long time for that to feel normal. Likewise, athletes who underwent different shoulder surgeries often say that they can still feel some discomfort using their arms overhead or behind their backs. In fact, I usually tell patients after most major shoulder and knee surgeries that it is the second season back after a surgery before they truly feel normal. So when I perform an ACL reconstruction on a high school soccer player, for example, I expect that the first season back playing soccer will go reasonably well, but the soccer player will still have occasional discomfort and be hesitant pushing off or changing directions. That soccer player most likely will tell me that the season after that one, be it a school season or a club or travel team season, will be the one that he or she does not think about his injury anymore.

Woman with shoulder pain

Again, when you get back to sports and return to normal after shoulder surgery is a discussion best held with your sports medicine physician. The type of injury suffered, the status of any degenerative changes in the joint, and the nature of the sport or activity all play a role in when you are back to 100%.