Wednesday, May 24, 2023


 Five days ago, I had surgery for a right rotator cuff complete tear. For that reason this essay will be a little short because typing with my right hand is somewhat restricted. The rotator cuff is the set of four muscles that attach to the humerus to rotate it in different directions.

A fresh rotator cuff tear can be very painful

I had heard various horror stories about how excruciating rotator cuff surgery can be post-op from those who have experienced it. A relative of mine recently went through it and had a rough time of it, including finding it tough to get to sleep and stay asleep. 

I’m happy to say that my post-op course has been rather uneventful, including on the first day after surgery when I found the pain quite manageable. Here are seven of my secrets from my perspective as a doctor patient--some physical, some psychological-- to having a successful surgery and recovery .

1. Outlook

Stay positive and think of the surgery as being done for you rather than to you . Your body, your mind, and your surgeon are combining forces to correct, improve, or restore, rather than you being a victim of an assault. Keep a sense of perspective: e.g. rotator cuff surgery isn’t a quadruple bypass.

2. Prepare your physical space

If you will have your post-op resting place in a certain section of your home, e.g. confining yourself downstairs because of a knee operation, or sleeping with your head higher than your body with a wedge pillow, get it all set up beforehand so that when you return home, you don’t have to deal with moving things around. Also have appropriate clothing ready. If it’s a head and neck procedure, you should wear a front-button shirt.

Wedge pillow (Shutterstock)

3. Have your medications ready to go

Pick up your medications like analgesics and antibiotics a day or more before surgery. Stopping at the pharmacy on the way home from the hospital is not a good idea. There are also pre-op and post-op recovery vitamins and minerals OTC I might recommend. 

Keep your medications within easy reach. If you have narcotic-type pain meds, it’s better to take them regularly on schedule as long as you’re experiencing pain in the first hours and days post-op. Don’t wait for the pain to become severe to treat it, because now it has a head start on you. No, you won’t become addicted. In fact, quite the opposite. 

Image: Kwei Quartey

3. Gadgets

If you won’t be able to reach up to shelves or down to the ground because of the procedure, equip yourself with gadgets like a reaching tool, sock donner, and long shoe-horn.

A “grabber” or “reacher” (Shutterstock)

4. Immediate post-op

If the surgery is an elective procedure, it will take place during the day sometime. If you return home early on and don’t feel severely groggy, I recommend you stay up till your normal bedtime to maintain your circadian cycle. This signals your body, “Hey, buddy, we’re going to keep everything as normal as possible.” It might also prevent you from insomnia when your normal bedtime comes around.

5. Feeding 

If you aren’t nauseous after surgery and have an eager appetite like I did, go ahead and eat. They might tell you to eat jello, but no need to restrict yourself to that if you can have more. Don’t forget you need protein to repair yourself. Keep well hydrated to help your kidneys flush out the remaining compounds from anesthesia.

6. Define your level of care

You may need a lot of assistance, very little, or everything in between, and that should be communicated with your caretaker. I personally don’t like being hovered over or fussed about. In this context, it’s advisable to start mobilizing as soon as possible, because while rest is beneficial, it can also demineralize bones if over-prolonged.

7. Psychological status

It helps to understand that post-op depression is common and normal, but you will likely begin to feel better as your recovery progresses. In the time being, stay in touch with family and friends if you need to. If you’re worried that something is wrong at the surgery site or that you have a fever, contact your surgeon. Most of the time, it’s not as bad as you think and a little of reassurance from your doctor can go a long way.

While you’re resting, you might catch up with some mindless TV or streaming. Reading is fine, but pick something light and cheery. Leave novels by Toni Morrison till another time.

One simple measure that can make you feel a lot better is to take a refreshing shower as soon as you can.


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  2. Kwei! First, hoping you recover quickly, as I am sure you will, given this absolute masterclass in how to do it. What a valuable and generous post, especially as it had to be done one-handed.

  3. All the best for your swift recovery, Kwei! I just had a much more minor issue (biceps insertion tear) so I’m guessing what you’re going through is that multiplied by 50 to a 100 times! And I thank you for your wise words too.

  4. Thanks for the advice, Kwei. I think a lot of people could benefit from hearing this BEFORE a procedure.

  5. From AA: How can it be that every single person scheduled for surgery is not given this advice???? Giving patients this advice a day or two before surgery should be STANDARD PRACTICE. Too too bad that so many doctors think about the body but not about the person who lives in it. You are a blessing to all of us, Kwei!

  6. I completely agree with Annamaria here, Kwei – this is brilliant advice that really should be given to all surgical patients, pre-op. Wonderful!

    And I agree about the shower. Washing your hair after a period when you haven't been able to is a real morale booster.

  7. I have a patient who calls it the rotatory cuff, which sounds like it's off somewhere having fun.

  8. As someone who in the past five years has had two of the surgeries you mention, Kwei, right rotator cuff complete repair and total left knee replacement, I join in the praise all our colleagues are showering upon you, for the advice you so generously share with us. Thank you from the bottom of my (bypass free) heart.