One of the most common questions I get from patients before surgery – and one you should ask – is when they can return to sports or exercise. In this Ask Dr. Geier column, I answer this question from a reader who wants to get back to recreational activities after surgery to repair a SLAP tear of the shoulder.

Tony writes:
Next week, I will have a repair of a slight labrum tear in my right shoulder. I’m not as young as I used to be (45). Will I be able to finally golf or fly fish 5 months from now assuming I don’t miss any therapy? Got to have priorities right? Thanks!

Great question. For some background information, the labrum is the cartilage bumper along the glenoid (socket) of the shoulder. A SLAP tear specifically refers to a tear of the superior labrum at the top of the glenoid where the biceps tendon attaches.

Surgery for a SLAP tear

Tears of the superior labrum might only need debridement if the labrum is frayed, and then recovery would be fairly quick. Surgery to repair, or reattach, a SLAP tear requires a longer rehab program.

Generally, the patient wears a sling all the time except when they are in physical therapy or doing exercises for 2 to 4 weeks. They work on motion of other joints of the arm but don’t move the shoulder much.

Over the next 4 to 6 weeks, the patient works to increase to full range of shoulder motion. He also starts some strengthening work. By 2 to 4 months, he works to increase strength. By 4 to 6 months, the patient should be able to start throwing (if he is a throwing athlete) and other overhead activities.

At that 4- to 6-month point, many patients resume recreational activities that include overhead motions, like golf, tennis and fishing. It is likely, though, that the shoulder will not feel normal right away. Often the shoulder strength and function continue to improve for the following six months or so.

Also read:
What might explain the large increase in arthroscopic SLAP repairs?

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at return to play for overhead athletes after SLAP repair surgery. Roughly 84% of the patients felt that they had returned to their preinjury level of function by an average of 11.7 months. Of course, it is important to note that the demands of pitching on the shoulder are much greater than those with golf or fly fishing.

SLAP tear image seen during surgery

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Neuman BJ, Boisvert CB, Reiter B, Lawson K, Ciccotti MG, Cohen SB.
Results of Arthroscopic Repair of Type II Superior Labral Anterior Posterior Lesions in Overhead Athletes: Assessment of Return to Preinjury Playing Level and Satisfaction. Am J Sports Med. September 2011. 39 1883-1888.