Rotator cuff surgery involves a long recovery process.  Trust me… it is a lot longer than you think it will be. Depending on your occupation and the type of work you perform  the recovery from rotator cuff surgery may require a lot of time off work to allow your rotator cuff to heal properly. The precise amount of time needed to be off from work after rotator cuff surgery can vary from 3-8 months.  If the rotator cuff is not given enough time to heal than the tear might recur.

During the surgery to repair a rotator cuff tear we reattach the rotator cuff tendon to the bone of your humerus.  During the healing process the repaired tendon of the rotator cuff is only held in place by a few sutures.  These sutures are not strong enough to support everyday use of the shoulder. Most people are not able to return to work immediately after rotator cuff surgery.  After nearly 6 weeks the rotator cuff tendon has started to heal and reattach itself to the bone.   It’s not a very strong attachment yet, but it is strong enough to allow you to … :

  • get dressed
  • feed yourself
  • type, write and read.
  • lift a coffee cup

The repaired rotator cuff continues to become stronger over many months.  The strength of the repair will continue to improve for over a year.  Your ability to return to work after a rotator cuff repair depends a lot on what type of work you do.   If you have a desk job then you are typically able to return to work and use your arm 6- 8 weeks after surgery.  If you can work with one arm in a sling then you can return to work sooner.

4 Key Facts About Rotator Cuff Healing

return to work rotator cuffIf you work in construction, lawn care, or you are a police officer, corrections officer, active military, etc and rely on your arm for overhead work and heavy lifting then it will take 6-8 months at a minimum for the rotator cuff repair to become strong enough to use the arm without putting the repair at risk.

The risk of returning to full duty work too quickly after a rotator cuff repair is that you can re-tear the rotator cuff.  Research shows that the risk of reinjury to your rotator cuff extends out to nearly 24 weeks after your shoulder surgery !!!

Keep in mind… your repair has no nerve fibers in it.  So many of you mistakenly think that you might feel the repair stretch or that you will feel pain before it tears again.  That is simply not true.  Many of you with recurrent tears will not feel the new tear occur.

Stiffness Can Be Protective After Rotator Cuff Surgery

Return to work after rotator cuff surgery

Recovery and return to work after a rotator cuff repair can be a very long process.  The ultimate recovery of normal strength can take 6-10 months depending on the size of the tear.   Recovery is a long process in order to allow the rotator cuff to heal.  If the rotator cuff tendon doesn’t heal well and if you return to work too soon you risk developing another tear.  The same goes for returning to a heavy gym workout … you need to wait more than six months before you can return to the gym on your own for a heavy overhead workout.  This is one of the reasons that a rotator cuff surgery is very challenging for people.  It is a painful surgery that requires a significant commitment to physical therapy and exercise and it has a long recovery.



Disclaimer:  this information is for your education and should not be considered medical advice regarding diagnosis or treatment recommendations. Some links on this page may be affiliate links. Read the full disclaimer.

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About the author:

Howard J. Luks, MD

Howard J. Luks, MD

A Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon in Hawthorne, NY. Dr. Howard Luks specializes in the treatment of the shoulder, knee, elbow, and ankle. He has a very "social" patient centric approach and believes that the more you understand about your issue, the more informed your decisions will be. Ultimately your treatments and his recommendations will be based on proper communications, proper understanding, and shared decision-making principles – all geared to improve your quality of life.

11 comments on “Returning to work after rotator cuff surgery

  • Dr Luks…. Please help !!!!
    About 10 weeks ago I took a fall at work, landing on my elbow and in turn damaging my shoulder. I think it’s a rotator cuff injury. Day to day light duties can be fine but I work in the construction industry. Sleeping at night can be very uncomfortable too. I’m self employed so a lengthy work absence is not an option. Do you have any advice how I can continue at work and possibly rehabilitate the injury at the same time ?
    Thank you,

    • Hi Steve… In order to answer that question, one needs to know the diagnosis. You should consider a good exam by a shoulder specialist to see what is going on and thus the best way to rehabilitate your shoulder.

  • Hello Dr Luks, I injured my shoulder at work. I had a complete tear of my rotator cuff and a bicep tear. I had both surgically repaired exactly 6 weeks ago. I am in physical therapy two times per week. I am still experiencing some pain and significant stiffness in my surgically repaired shoulder. My current range of motion is at about 85%. I work in a automotive assembly factory, my surgeon is sending me back to work, with restrictions of course. I am just concerned that this may be to soon to return to a 10 hour shift even with restrictions. Dr. Luks, what is your opinion?

    • Hi Steve… Sorry, but I can not provide treatment advice in this format. 6 weeks does seem a bit early. Have you spoken with your own doc about this?

  • Going through the same thing but this is my second rotator surgery after the first one failed last year. I’m still not at work yet and it’s been almost 6 months from my last surgery. I do heavy lifting up to 70 lbs . Also a lot of overhead repetitive lifting. I’m worried that I will end up re injuring my shoulder. Also my hours are 10 to 12 hours a day! I still have quite a bit of pain with lifting! Am I ever going to be normal again after 2 big surgeries a year apart from each other?

    • I don’t know the answer to that… but I do wish you the best. Recovery from rotator cuff surgery can take more than a year. Unfortunately, reinjury is pretty common if the tear was large and degenerative.

  • Dr. Luks. My son followed in my footsteps and is a fire captain/medic. He tore his rotator cuff during a rescue. His MRI shows a “small tear” and is waiting his consultation and surgery date. He’s been told he will most likely be off the job for at least a year after surgery. How soon after surgery does rehab/PT begin to take place and begin? How long after surgery does he have to wear a sling? Sounds like he’s been told pretty much what you’ve stated, but has not heard yet on the items I ask here so just curious. He loves the job so he’ll be very diligent in following post surgical instructions as to not jeopardize or lengthen his return to work. He was using the jaws of life (very heavy) on a very complicated cut and rescue ar a traffic in a traffic accident when the injury occurred. We all know how Comp goes (very slowly!) and they had him in PT for quite a spell before even ordering the MRI which indeed diagnosed the tear. I’m hoping that PT didn’t make the tear worse. Holding good thoughts. Thanks for any insight on my questions above!

    • HI Tony…
      Our best wishes to your son. And thank him for his service!
      We usually start PT for small tears fairly soon after surgery. Some surgeons will start it at two weeks, some might wait until 4 weeks after surgery. The research shows that most repairs tolerate early passive motion very well. The sling is controversial too. We use it in many people to protect them from using their arm too much. For small tears the amount of time in a sling will vary from 2-6 weeks depending on the surgeon.

      Again… best of luck!

  • Hi I have a question I’m currently under Drs care I fell off a telephone pole 20 ft and have a partial tear to my rotator cuff. Labrum and a bicep tear I was scheduled and went in for surgery. Nerve block was applied then they discovered I had pneumonia so surgery was canceled. Now after nerve block wore off pain lessons and so did swelling now i are doing physical therapy instead of surgery. My question is what is the likelihood with or without surgery will I be able to return to my current profession as a cable lineman. Climbing poles laddrrs and working over my head ?

  • Dr. Luks, I have a “high grade partial thickness tear (70-75%) of the supraspinatus tendon” on my left shoulder as observed by an MRI and communicated by my doctor. I can move my shoulder pretty well (went skiing with my daughter this weekend!) but holding a pushup position and hanging from a pull up bar is nearly impossible. The likely cause is acute (October 2019 softball injury when I dove for a screaming line drive at 3rd base that pulled my shoulder as I dove). However, I’ve had issues with this shoulder before: 8 yrs ago I had a cortisone shot for a similar softball injury, and 1 year ago I fell pretty hard while surfing (indoor mechanical wave surfing) and this left arm and shoulder tired to support me as I fell. Now, 4 months after the most recent injury (softball dive), I still have pain. I had another cortisone shot and have done a little Physical Therapy on it (but not much as it always hurts when I do PT exercises). Is surgery necessary? If so, how soon can I return to work? I’m a HS science teachers. I can set up labs with one hand, besides that I only need to type on the computer. Thanks in advance!

    • HI Nate…
      There are times when a deep partial tear will cause pain that doesn’t improve with time, injections and PT.
      That being said… there are other pain generators in the shoulder which may not be obvious on an MRI… the point being, see a shoulder doc for a second opinion before considering a repair.
      PASTA repairs are possible for these types of tears… but the recovery can be nearly as long as for full tears.

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