Preparing for Rotator Cuff Surgery, Part 2

preparing for rotater cuff surgery learn to brush your teeth with the other handPart 1 of preparing for rotator cuff surgery focused on assembling conveniences to make life with one good arm—usually not your dominate appendage—more manageable. Part 2 is about preparing yourself.


Continue to do all you can to boost your immune system. You’ll be asked to stop taking all your vitamins and herbals a week before surgery, so do not delay in loading up to safe levels prior to that.

Keep up with your exercises. Your large arm muscles are not the issue–it’s the tiny little bits in your shoulders that usually do not get enough of the right kind of attention. T’s and Y’s with light-to-very-light weights are good for this. By all means, get some help. For large muscles, work on chest and back.

Get the knots out. If you have a big aching lump in your upper back like I did, I recommend the Body Back Buddy, similar to a Theracane, but better, in my opinion. Massage is a good idea, too.


You’ll probably be surprised at all the things you do every day, all day long, that rely almost exclusively on the mobility of the arm that is about to go under the knife. Over a period of days, think through and plan how you are going to maintain those functions—either independently or with someone’s help—with your repaired shoulder and arm in a bulky sling (picture holding a 2 pound loaf of bread under you arm and if you drop it you will die).


Now comes the fun part. Start doing everything possible with the arm that will be free after surgery. For example, shower and wash your hair using only your left hand. Can you also dry yourself with your designated arm hanging loosely at your side? (I finally found gathering the end of a towel in one hand and throwing it over my back like a switch swatting flies works pretty well. Just make sure you have lots of clearance so you aren’t sweeping bathroom breakables onto the floor.) Of course, you will not be able to shower for two weeks, but this is one of the easiest areas to begin practicing.

I focused on personal hygiene, because that is something most of us do entirely by ourselves all the time, whether or not we live alone. Someone else may be willing to slice up a salad for you, but they are less likely to want to wash and dry you, do your hair (and may be less skilled at it) and pull up your britches after you use the toilet.


I quickly learned I preferred to sponge myself off than to have my partner do it. Reason is, it’s like being a passenger in a car—you get jostled much more than when you’re the one holding the wheel. The unexpected movements of my body made me anxious about moving the shoulder too much (not in the sling for bathing) or flat out pain. And as I said in Part 1, use wipes every chance you get so there is less to do at the sink at bath time.

After a few days, I had to have a bath. I put a face towel on the edge of the tub, had Ellen help me lower my arm to the floor outside the tub, and put my armpit on the little towel. (You cannot lift your arm even 3 inches of its own volition the first week out.) I soaked and read a magazine article.

By the second week, I was able to hold my elbow to my side, at a right angle, and sit all the way into the tub, washing with only my left hand. It is absolutely critical that the stitches not get wet, because that is the leading cause of post surgical infection!

Hair Washing

When we bought the house, I had a high-arching faucet put in the lavatory. The plumber had so much trouble with it, he did his best to talk me into a “normal” fixture, but I knew I would occasionally want to wash my hair in the sink rather than in the shower. Never truer than after the shoulder surgery!

I opened the drawer beside the lavatory and laid a bath towel across it for quick application after the wash and rinse is complete. You cannot stand up before grabbing a towel—water will drip down to your shoulder. Still bent over and dripping, you turn toward the towel, pull it up over your head with your free arm, and cradle the excess around your neck to protect your stitches from water.

By my second week, I was able to turn over to my knees in the tub and dunk my head, one side at a time, into the bath water and wash hair—being careful to go directly to the towel without raising my head! Think of this: washing your hair in bath water, you will need less product for styling, because it won’t be “too clean” to style.

Hair Styling

I had a heckuva a time learning to put product on my hair using only one hand, because how do we do it? We dispense it into one hand, rub our hands together, then with both hands evenly apply the product. Ellen did my hair for me a few times, but I teased her that she was having a great joke at my expense. I tried three different gels, and found one that works with one hand with a drop or two of water added.

Styling was hard for me because I use a brush to lift my hair, and the dryer to curve the hair over the brush. Air drying doesn’t work for hair as fine and thin as mine. I took new tactics with one-handed drying, being more precise with the tool, and for a few days now have been able to leave the house looking respectable on my own. Guys, you’re lucky.


Whether you wear makeup, trim your mustache or wax your own eyebrows, start practicing with what will become your only free hand for six weeks so when you goof it up, you can fix it with your other hand. I learned to apply makeup with my left hand. It doesn’t always come out well, especially lipstick, but that was true when I had two hands!

This is important, because you’re wearing clothes a size or two too large for you, and you have a giant black cast strapped to your side. You want to do what you can to attract attention to your face and feel like you’re not the centerpiece of a pity party.

Preparing for the Weeks Ahead

It seemed important to me to reduce the amount of work I would need to do the first couple weeks after surgery. I cooked up a big pot of vegetable stew. I make a pot of chili. I made a bunch of freezable sandwiches to take to work for lunch.

I finished the grapefruit, because whether you dig with a grapefruit spoon or peel and section, you cannot do either with only one hand.

I also changed light bulbs, scrubbed the bathtub, added some tweaks to the flower garden drip system and a dozen more things I knew no one else could or would do. Tightened the loose magnets on the kitchen cupboards, for example.

Cut, Clip, Remove

  • Get your hair cut shorter if that will make it more manageable for 6 weeks
  • Trim and file your finger and toenails—I used this as a fun mani-pedi opp with a girlfriend
  • Shave anything that could benefit from that


Give up stuff you will not be able to easily continue with one hand, no matter how virtuous. The day before my surgery, I put the last jar of food scraps into the composting bin. The bin requires two strong arms and hands to open. Just not gonna compost for another month.

Became lax on recycling. Pulling (and pushing) are two activities you should not be doing with a torn rotater cuff. Don’t struggle to pull that molded plastic off the cardboard packaging. Some of it just has to go like it is or go to garbage.

The grounds are going to fade. For me, my excuse is It’s fall anyway, and the gardens are beginning to stop blooming, die back and go into winter mode. Truth is, with proper watering and deadheading, I could get two more weeks of lushness out of my summer’s project. While I can still do a bit of maintenance, and I love it, I’ve cut myself some slack, bearing in mind the fatigue of pain, and the extra long time it takes to do absolutely anything else—even putting the silverware away out of the dishwasher!

The Sling

I’d like to make a video of how to wear and put on/take off the sling, but I’m not yet clear on how to film this while demonstrating. And do we use audio or not? I used to do a lot of video editing, adding pointers and text, but do I remember how to do that? Is that software on my current computer, and do I have the time and energy?

Cross your fingers!

Odds and Ends

  • give up on the idea of wearing a bra
  • pullovers are difficult—you must not raise your arm, so skip them!
  • no zippers!
  • buy spray on deodorant
  • buy premade salads and other prepared foods—you don’t want to become a junkaholic, but most anything you can eat will sustain life for six weeks—I had to give up chef knives (which I love) because I’m no good with them in my left hand, but I have some serrated things from a store demo that will get me through a tomato or a bunch of fresh Swiss chard from my neighbor’s back yard.

Your comments below will help this post gain traction online so others who search—like I did!—can find some practical, no-nonsense ideas to help them through torn rotator cuff surgery. And please forward. Thank you.

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4 Responses to Preparing for Rotator Cuff Surgery, Part 2

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