A total shoulder replacement is a common orthopedic procedure to fix Osteoarthritis. Even though the surgery is becoming more common it can still be painful during the first 1-2 weeks post-operative. At times early in the recovery, it can seem that the pain is severe and difficult to get control of even with pain medication.
Total shoulder replacements are one of the surgeries with the highest amounts of pain after surgery. In this blog post, we’ll go over the best ways to combat high pain levels and get comfortable in those times early after surgery.
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Is a Total Shoulder Replacement Painful?
Pain after surgery is common and totally normal. You just had major surgery and pain is normal and expected part of the recovery immediately after surgery. However, some people experience higher levels of pain during a shoulder replacement than other surgeries that we commonly see.
Total shoulder replacements can be quite painful during the first 1-2 weeks after surgery. This is due to the nerves in the shoulder, the difficulty getting muscles to relax after surgery and it can be difficult to find a comfortable position after surgery.
Pain medication is often prescribed after surgery but sometimes it’s not enough to give you enough relief. Below are 9 ways to get pain relief after a total shoulder replacement.
Adjusting the Shoulder Brace After a Shoulder Replacement
The first thing to do when pain levels are getting out of control is to check the fit of the shoulder brace. The brace is worn at all times after surgery, including sleeping, eating, and walking. The brace can get twisting and out of place which means that it isn’t supporting the surgical arm the way it’s supposed.
If your surgical arm does not have the adequate support it needs, it will start to ache and the pain will gradually increase.
To adjust the brace for more support, loosen the strap that goes over the shoulder and around the neck and pull it tighter. This will lift the arm and brace higher giving the shoulder more support. You have to do this frequently during the 4-6 weeks you are in the sling.
Using an Ice Machine After Shoulder Surgery to Control Pain
Another great way to decrease shoulder pain after surgery is using a circulating ice machine. Ice works great in numbing the nerves in the shoulder and constricting the blood vessels to limit swelling in the shoulder.
Yes, we know that you might get an ice pack to take home from the hospital however these are rarely enough to do the job. We like the Pain Management Technologies circulating ice machine because you fill it with ice and it circulates cold water to your shoulder with an automatic timer.
An ice massage can be used several times a day or as much as you need it when the pain in the shoulder gets out of control. We do recommend icing no longer than 20 minutes at a time and no more than one time per hour.
Stay Compliant with Physical Therapy After Shoulder Surgery
After total shoulder replacement surgery, you need to make sure that you are compliant with your physical therapy exercises and going to each scheduled visit. Your physical therapist will make sure that everything is on track for healing, there are no infections, and that the muscles and tendons are recovering the way they should.
Even at times when the treatments don’t seem to be doing much, there is always a rhyme and reason for the treatment. Often times the target treatment and goals are subtle but important.
Physical therapy has been shown to decrease pain levels, reduce swelling, improve range of motion, and increase strength after a shoulder replacement.
Use a Personal Massager for Pain Relief
A personal massager is a great way to relax the muscles in your shoulder after surgery. Many people who have had total shoulder replacements have painful muscle spasms in the shoulder area. The muscle spasms are normal and a part of the healing process. These spasms happen as the body’s response to protect the surgically repaired shoulder.
The benefit of using a percussion massager is that you can help loosen the tight muscles and prevent muscle spasms by yourself. You don’t need your spouse or another person to use the muscle massager. You can also use the massager as much as you want, including several times a day.
Just be sure you do not place too much pressure on or around the incisions. Try to stay on the muscles and tendons and if it hurts back off on the pressure or the intensity of the massager.
Performing Shoulder Traction and Exercises
Another great way to decrease shoulder pain after surgery is getting the arm out of the sling and giving it some light traction. This includes bending over and letting the arm dangle down and performing what’s called Pendulums.
Traction helps take pressure off the shoulder joint, lightly stretches some of the ligaments and muscles, and can help calm down the nerves. To do this safely, take the brace off, and while holding to a chair or countertop lean forward like you are going to touch your toes. Let your muscles relax in the shoulder and just let it hang. This exercise is great for temporary pain relief and overall shoulder health.
Get Up and Exercise Rest of the Body
One of the best ways to decrease shoulder pain after surgery is getting up and exercising the rest of the body. This includes walking, stationary biking, or other low-impact activities that get your heart rate elevated. The benefit of exercising when you have a total shoulder replacement is decreasing inflammation, releasing the body’s natural pain-relieving endorphins, decreasing muscle tightness, and increasing blood flow through the body.
After a total shoulder replacement, we recommend walking for 15 minutes 2-3 times a day to prevent blood clots and to help with overall healing. Make sure that you walk in areas that aren’t going to be a fall risk. There’s nothing scarier than falling with a brand new shoulder right?
Other ways that we recommend exercise after a shoulder replacement is to use a stationary bike or a recumbent elliptical. These are safe to use and easy to get on and off of with a shoulder sling on.
Pro Tip: If you are in pain after shoulder surgery, go exercise. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel after you’re done exercising.
Use a TENS Unit on the Shoulder
A TENS unit stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. This is a little device that you place on the shoulder and it delivers low voltage electrical impulses to the nerves in your shoulder area.
The benefit of using a TENS machine is decreasing pain by blocking out incoming signals from reaching the brain. If there isn’t any pain signal reaching the brain, then it temporarily decreases pain levels in the shoulder. The TENS unit can also help increase blood flow through the body and decrease muscle guarding, which is great for decreasing pain after surgery.
We recommend the iReleiv Tens Unit because it’s easy to use and the electrodes are inexpensive to order once you need to order more.
Try a Topical Pain Cream After a Shoulder Replacement
A topical pain cream is a great way to temporarily relieve pain and get more comfortable. After a shoulder replacement, you can rub a topical pain cream such as Penetrex or Icy Hot on the shoulder multiple times a day. We recommend trying it right before bed to help you get to sleep faster and with less pain.
One tip is to avoid getting the cream into or too close to the incisions or on top of the bandages. Other than avoiding the incisions, you can use the pain cream on the shoulder as often as you want.
Pain after a total shoulder replacement is common and expected, however that doesn’t mean that you should be in a position of unbearable pain. By following our 8 helpful tips you should be able to decrease the pain levels to manageable levels and control the pain as you progress through your rehab.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only. This is not a substitute for a medical appointment. Please refer to your physician before starting any exercise program.