Surviving Shoulder Surgery...and Slowly Slipping Sanity...

Cole_GCole_G PhiladelphiaMember

Sorry, I got a little excited with the alliteration.

I have been away from the forum for a while, mostly because I have been away from swimming for over 9 months now (a combination of stress caused by leaving grad school and entering the professional world, and an injury). While 9 months might not seem like a long time to some of you, this is easily the longest break I have had from swimming in over 10 years. Like most people here, swimming is not only my primary form of exercise but also my primary form of stress release (and as if starting a new job, getting injured and needing surgery weren't stressful enough, I have also had to deal with some very serious medical issues with my mother for the past 6 months).

I am currently 7 weeks out from surgery to repair a torn labrum in my right shoulder, and just finished my 2nd week of PT. My range of motion is currently so limited that I struggle to imagine being able to start swimming again anytime in the next 3 months (a thought that has me fairly depressed). On top of that I am starting to have some pain in my left shoulder, and I am afraid that being one armed for the past 7 weeks may have lead me to hurt that one as well ( and I am terrified that I may have to repeat this process with my 2nd shoulder as soon as this one heals up).

Sorry, if that all sounds a bit melodramatic, but the bottom line is I am going out my mind without swimming in my life, and I am currently having a hard time seeing the light at the end of this recovery tunnel. So I was hoping to start a discussion of 2 things:

  1. Similar stories of injury/surgery/recovery with happy endings. Have any of you guys had successful shoulder surgeries and returned to swimming long distances?

  2. Tips/tricks/ideas for keeping your sanity when out of the water for a long time. Are there any hobbies/activities you can suggest that have helped you deal with long breaks from swimming?


  • gtswimgtswim PennsylvaniaMember

    I had surgery back in 2001 for a rotator cuff impingement, torn labrum and the doc did a thermal shrinkage of the shoulder joint because it was severely unstable. I was in a sling for 4 weeks to make sure the thermal shrinkage took hold. PT started 2 weeks post surgery)

    Since I couldn't swim I did other cardio workouts (exercise bike and elliptical). PT seemed to take forever before I was cleared to swim again (I think it was 8 weeks, 10 weeks post surgery).

    Other than not being able to throw a baseball like I used to I haven't had any issues since. I don't do any fly (not that I was any good at it prior to surgery) but I don't have any problems swimming.

    Good luck on your recovery. It will take time, but you'll eventually be back.

  • nvr2latenvr2late Central VirginiaCharter Member

    I had rotator cuff surgery in March 2014 on my right shoulder following training for and attempting the English Channel in August 2013. I had 3 tendons repaired and in addition a bicep tenodesis. I was very motivated to recover as I had accepted team membership in an English Channel relay which I was able to do in August 2015. The surgical recovery for me was long and painful, and in my case, took a full year. I was in PT for 5 months, but did start some swimming in the summer of 2014, 3 months post surgery. My stroke was awkward, the bicep tenodesis being the most aggravating thing to adapt to. I still have pain from time to time and have had to reduce my speed and distance and days/week of swimming. I, like you, am also starting to experience pain in my opposite shoulder, much to my regret and disappointment because as we both well know how difficult the recovery from shoulder surgery can be. You will recover, patience is so necessary in this process. I have several swims this year - Nevis to St. Kitts, 2.5 miles, Chesapeake Bay, 4.4 miles and Galway Bay Relay - my share is about 4 miles. I know that I cannot train for and enter anymore swims greater than 4-5 miles so my hopes of a repeat Channel attempt are gone but I have been fortunate to be on a great Channel relay and will return to Dover in July 2017. My best wishes to you for a full recovery.

  • rosemarymintrosemarymint Charleston, SCCharter Member

    Been through the exact same surgery and worse. A labrum only repair is one of the easiest to come back from, as long as you listen to your doctor and work your ass off in PT. Also, sleep is so important -- that's when your body is repairing.

    First time was simply a torn labrum in my right shoulder. 7 weeks immobilized and then as soon as I had permission, I was ordered to start pushing as hard as I could in PT. Thankfully I had a surgeon who was an athlete and a PTist who understood that water = sanity, and allowed me to start using either a one-armed butterfly stroke with my healing arm held to the side, or modified kickboarding with either one hand in front or on my back clutching the board with both hands to my belly. Once I got permission to start using my arm, I let the water float my arm up passively and that also helped. Like you, I need the water to feel sane and whole. Find ways to be in the water that doesn't affect the body parts you can't move. Learn as much as you can about the anatomy and what feels like what when you move it. Talk to your PTist about all of this, read the anatomy books, be curious. You may feel the screws for some time. Talk with your surgeon about where limits are, in terms of discomfort, hurting and pain. Learn what you should work through and what should stop you for the day.

    Know that once you get permission to start firing your tendons again (if you're 7 weeks out that's already happened), recovery will move quickly. Range of motion was near full for me within 1 month of getting that go-ahead (when like you I thought three months), and three months to the day of surgery, I swam 3,000. Within five months, I was swimming 5K+ with no problem. Key things for me that I asked: Will pushing in PT now help range of motion come back quicker. The answer was yes. So I put my trust in my PTist to push me as hard as I could go, knowing it was going to hurt like hell (and I would have to go home for a three hour nap after PT just to process it all.) I trusted my PTist not to set me back, but to push me beyond where I would go. It will hurt. But it will eventually come back, faster than you think.

    Word of warning: I popped my labrum twice. Both times were using paddles and a hyper-extended stroke. The second time, the repair came with a tenodesis (my biceps tendon is now outside of my shoulder capsule) and a FULL rotator cuff repair (that was a surprise waking up, by the way.) Recovery from that ordeal took months and about near broke me mentally (and I was starting grad school full time in the process.) But again, I was swimming 5k or longer by summer. Listen to your PTist. Work on strengthening everything you can in this recovery process. Keep your range of motion healthy, and take this as an opportunity to relearn a freestyle stroke that is as low-impact on your anatomy as possible. Figure out whether fly is a stroke that is sustainable for your body in the long-run (and you are really young, so as much as it may be annoying to hear this, use this as a time to think about your swimming for the rest of your life and how repeated surgeries are not a good thing.) Cross train and find ways to keep your body as strong as possible.

    I've become a MUCH better swimmer since all of this because each time I used the surgery and recovery to revamp how I moved in the water. And oddly enough, the repaired arm is now my dominant breathing arm. It's that much stronger and healthier (and is also an indication that the other arm needs a rotator cuff repair and tenodesis, but no way am I going through that any time soon.)

    Hope this helps. You're on the rebuilding side now. Time to get to work.

  • JenAJenA Charter Member

    Maybe it's a good time to take stock of what you can still do. :) Perhaps start by watching Paralympic swimmers on youtube for sheer inspiration:

    You may still be able to:

    • Buy a snorkel, and go to the pool and kick mad sets
    • Swim one-arm fly drills.
    • Practice one arm sculling
    • Do underwater drills where you 'sneak' your hands forward (not past your shoulders), and then complete the finishing part of your stroke (or whatever is shoulder-friendly for your injury)
  • Cole_GCole_G PhiladelphiaMember

    Just reading these responses has already lifted my spirits :) I know the doctor said I should be able to return to swimming no problem, but hearing that is always different than knowing first hand other people who have done it.

    I have started doing some general cardio work on land. It is going slow since I left my overall fitness slip, but I have to start somewhere. I haven't been cleared to get back in the water yet, but I have a meeting with my doctor this week and I will definitely ask about the possibility of getting back in for drills/kick as you guys suggest.

    @rosemarymint I certainly do not envy you your shoulders, but it sounds like you are tough as nails to come back from that many shoulder issues. Have you found that your shoulder limits the max distance you can go for, like @nvr2late? I will happy just being able to swim again, but being so young in this sport I do have dreams of eventually swimming the English Channel and other such crazy challenges.

  • DanSimonelliDanSimonelli San Diego CASenior Member

    Though I can't speak to the injury/rehab part,
    I concur with @JenA, albeit not specifically about working out but about still getting in the water, playing, doing whatever that doesn't risk aggravating injury.
    Enjoy the water for all it gives you beyond extensive exercise.
    I expect you'll find stress relief and mental benefits, just in a different way.

  • nvr2latenvr2late Central VirginiaCharter Member

    Cole-G - I am a huge fan of the WWC soccer team. I found this video of Hope Solo discussing her shoulder surgery to be a big inspiration. I identified with so much of her testimony - the decision to have surgery, the difficulty post op with activities of daily living - her grimace during therapy - even the number of anchors was the same as mine! To see that she returned to her sport that involved diving is remarkable. I cannot imagine landing full force on either shoulder under any circumstances! I hope that her story will inspire you as it inspired me. By the way, I am 62 and as such have natural degnerative issues with all of my tendons so do not let the fact that I am limiting my distance of swimming in any way discourage you from marathon swims in your future, including the English Channel. I was 59 when I made my attempt! Good luck to you!

  • Cole_GCole_G PhiladelphiaMember

    @DanSimonelli I think you are right that just getting back in the water at all will help mentally. I tried filling up my bathtub this afternoon and splashing around and it didn't quite do the trick, but maybe if I try getting in an actual pool :))

    @nvr2late wow, that video really hit home! Thank you for sharing it. It really puts the relative magnitude of my injury (and what I want to be able to do with my shoulder) in perspective.
    And i just assumed the distance limit was a result of the surgery. I am just trying to build a realistic expectation of my goals and timeline.

  • rosemarymintrosemarymint Charleston, SCCharter Member

    @Cole_G my distance actually improved after surgeries because I became such a better swimmer. My big limiter right now is the other shoulder needs work and in order to avoid that as long as possible, I have a slightly different stroke for each arm. Sometimes it comes down to how good your rehab was and sometimes it comes down to stuff outside of your control. Younger folks recover faster and easier, especially if they do the hard painful work in rehab. I will say that the first few years are always going to be a bit of a struggle because you will need more recovery time in between swims. And longer swims will mean even more recovery time. It's important to make sure you do listen to your body and make sure you ice down after every swim, take rest days, and don't do too much if you haven't trained for it. After three years, the screw should dissolve (if your doctor used the dissolving screw) and you may notice things get easier when that happens. And by easier, I mean you don't occasionally feel a twinge.

    Also, find other stuff you enjoy doing. The more you can cross train and spread the wealth around, the stronger and more sustainable your swimming will become.

    Funny story -- after my first labrum repair, I was home on the couch the afternoon of surgery and I sneezed hard. It hurt like hell, but for the first time in two years, my shoulder didn't dislocate when I sneezed and I started crying because I was so happy (and high on percocet.)

  • nvr2latenvr2late Central VirginiaCharter Member

    I am glad that the video of Hope Solo was an inspiration to you!

  • dpm50dpm50 PA, U.S.Senior Member

    I can't speak to your particular injury, except to wish you a speedy recovery. But staying sane? Well, since I'm marginally there ;) maybe I can be of some help.

    The land activity is great. I got into swimming from a running background and my first o.w. swim took place b/c I had a stubborn running injury and missed competing so figured a swim would keep things interesting. Now I do both, which means if I have an injury in one sport, I still have the other. If I lose both....I don't know...Maybe I'll take up marbles to keep from losing mine.

    Since running doesn't necessarily give you time in the water, maybe water running would be a compromise of sorts. I've done interval workouts using a floatation vest and while I prefer swimming, it did help w fitness while running injuries healed. So maybe it would work as a stopgap in your situation.

    Injuries of whatever kind @$!#!. So I hope yours soon heals and you're back to swimming again!

    Oh and I've found yoga and meditation can also help!

    Feel better soon!

  • Cole G- I sympathize greatly for you, the water has become my sanctuary. I dread the day I will need to be pulled for much needed repair work, I am glad you posted this thread as I have been living in dread that shoulder surgery may end my distance dreams.

    Thank you everyone for sharing, I know no one wants to take time out for repair work but hearing that a come back is more than doable helps.

    That being said, I have a question and don't mean to hijack a thread, but thought it may fit here. I know my shoulders will eventually need an "over haul" and I am hopeful that by taking care of them and not risking injuries doing silly things like Butterfly :P I can push this off a great while. [-O<

    What I can't push off much longer is a bum knee. Does anyone have experience on recovery from a torn meniscus and repair? I am putting of the surgery until after the indoor season is over (mid-April) for me, and I have a brief window before hoping to hit the OWS season in early June. I know it is fairly common surgery, but wasn't sure what to expect as my doc is not a swimmer.

    Thank you all for the support and inspirational stories!

  • SpacemanspiffSpacemanspiff Dallas, TexasSenior Member

    @Cole_G I'm so sorry to hear of this, Cole! None of this sounds melodramatic in this audience, brother, especially not coming from one as successful as you. Losing swimming would be like losing a best friend. Or worse. My comment is more about hope that practical solutions:

    I've had fairly significant trauma to both shoulders, neither has affected my swimming at all for almost 20 years. I injured my left shoulder in college and doctor said I didn't need surgery. Even with therapy, the joint became so unstable that it would dislocate at least 1-2 times a month. My (new) doctor tightened up the ligaments (folded & stapled). The surgery was in 1991, so no "scope" for me. I have a 5-inch Frankenstein scar. The recovery was long/slow/painful, but COMPLETE. Then, in 1998, I suffered a third-degree separation of the AC joint in my right shoulder. I've never had it repaired, so my clavicle sticks up about an inch and my right pectoral sags noticeably. But I swim straight and true (and completely pain free).

    I know it may seem far away and fuzzy, but you are young and fit as hell, @Cole_G, you will recover just fine...

    Now, if I could just get through my medial epicondylitis!


    "Lights go out and I can't be saved
    Tides that I tried to swim against
    Have brought be down upon my knees
    Oh I beg, I beg and plead..."

  • DanSimonelliDanSimonelli San Diego CASenior Member

    Spacemanspiff said:


    ... so my clavicle sticks up about an inch and my right pectoral sags noticeably. But I swim straight and true (and completely pain free).

    Wow! @-)

    Swimming "straight and true"...that's awesome!

  • Cole_GCole_G PhiladelphiaMember

    @rosemarymint I think will definitely take advantage of the slow entry back into the water to fix some technique issues. It will probably be the best time since I have been out of the water for so long.

    And I had a similar pain experience with my shoulder. I made the mistake of going to see a hilarious comedy movie only 1 week after the surgery. I came out of the movie crying because the constant laughing hurt my shoulder so much.

    @dpm50 I am trying to start getting back into running now, but I have to be very cautious. It was actually a serious of running injuries that actually got me back into the world of swimming after brief attempt at being a triathlete. I have never really tried water running, but I suppose it couldn't hurt to give it a try. And yoga is definitely on my to do list, but i think I need to get more of my range of motion back first.

  • Cole_GCole_G PhiladelphiaMember

    @Camille I cant really comment on the surgery aspect, but I did have to do about 2 months of PT for some issues with my knee a couple of years ago. I found that until my PT was finished I couldn't really push off the wall at all, and could only kick a little bit, so it made for a lot of pulling and really awkward slow turns at the wall. So I would suggest trying to time things out so you're recovering during the summer and open water is easier to get to (so you don't have to deal with walls).

    Holy cow @Spacemanspiff , you still manage to swim with that separation?! I can't even imagine that.

    With all these injuries you veterans have sustained and recovered from, it just confirms my belief that you're all crazy, and that I have clearly found the right sport to be in :D

  • MikeHMikeH Member

    I've had surgery on both my shoulders; the left for a labrum tear and the right to debride and clean it up. the labrum tear surgery took 7 months to recover until I was swimming, and the right was much quicker at about 2-3 months. In both cases, I did studious & copious PT. On my left shoulder, there were two things that accelerated my recovery - self massage (simply using thumb and forefinger, during meetings at work and whenever I was sitting) and doing lat pull-downs with light weight. The latter was the most impactful and gave me back almost all of my range of motion, perhaps 98% of it, with the remaining improvements coming after I was back in the water.

    One other thing that helped me recover in both instances was patience. A more analogous injury situation to yours that I had was an IT band issue some years ago. I was pretty much crushed because I was taking some time off swimming and was thus primarily running and cycling - so the IT band issue meant I couldn't do anything I wanted. It took more than a year to heal and I suffered mentally every day with my lost strength and focus, primarily because I identified myself as a runner first and foremost. One night during this time I was hanging out with my middle son who was about 5 at the time and he asked me if I was going running. I replied that I couldn't because my knee hurt. He paused a moment, and then went back to whatever we were playing together with a comment "I like it when your knee hurts, Daddy". After he made that sobering statement, it helped me put it in perspective and I was able to relax and let nature takes its course on my IT band.

  • swimmer25kswimmer25k Charter Member

    I tore up my right shoulder in the 1996 Atlantic City Marathon Swim. I had the torn labrum and joint capsule repaired right after Thanksgiving. World and Pan Pac Championship trials were only 18 weeks away when I had it done. (I was coaching Georgetown University when I had the surgery.)

    The therapy was paramount to my recovery. I was doing it 3 times a week along with lots of stretching with a broomstick and strengthening with the long elastic bands.

    After a few days post-op, my coach had me cycling on a stationary bike. When the stitches were out, I did a lot of one-armed swimming with fins. I had to be careful because the unbalanced nature of one-arming it began to wear on my good shoulder.

    When we were at Christmas training at a highschool in Altamonte Springs, FL I stayed at the facility to rehab, stretch, and workout. I ran several sets of stadium steps, and "suicide" sprints on the football field. My overall fitness ended up pretty good.

    With only about 13-14 to train, I started off really easy in the pool. After about a month of easy training I was back up to 10K per workout. I swam 14K per workout when we were at the Big East meet at Rutgers in NJ.

    I ended up having a pretty good race at trials, but I came up one spot short of making the US National Team. The second and final leg was into a pretty good wind. I ended up passing lots of guys and was still moving on second place. I just ran out of time and distance.

    My shoulder bugged me for years afterwards because I kept training on it pretty hard. I did not do too many OW swims, or the high-volume training from mid-2002 until early 2004. That time let me heal up pretty well.

    Keep up with the therapy as best you can. It is integral in your recovery.

    I'm getting ready for back surgery #9 and haven't lost faith yet. Stay strong.


  • lakespraylakespray Senior Member

    I had a ski accident in November of 2005, at the time I was 44 years old old and swimming at a high level. After the accident I couldn't lift my right arm past my shoulder. An MRI showed some damage but it was inconclusive. Surgeon thought a debride & clean up of the labrum area would be enough. When they went in they discovered a partially torn rota-tor cuff so they repaired it. Prior to the surgery, rehabilitation was predicted to be relatively short that I'd be swimming again within 3 months. I worked the physical therapy (PT) very hard and had a very good range of motion within in 8 weeks and could easily lift my arm over my shoulder pain free. For the that part, the surgery was very successful, but for swimming it was a whole different ball game. I made good progress with PT and my surgeon okay'd a return to the water after about 4 months, however it did not go well. Even though I started out with little yardage and very slowly, my shoulder became inflamed. I quit and several months later still doing my PT I attempted again but with the same results. I too became despondent did not know if I'd swim again. Ultimately it was not the big movements but the repetitive motion of swimming that was an issue. Finally in my third attempt of returning to swimming was the charm, it was a little over a year after the surgery. Again I started out very slowly but I added regular massage therapy from an excellent therapist who is a competitive swimmer herself. The massage therapy really hurt, but it bridged the gap. Starting in 2008, I was able to return to competitive open water events albeit not at the same level, a year later 2009 I was back to my old self and won the Alcatraz Challenge. Since that time, I've swam the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (2013), was a age group national champion in USMS open water 10K champion (2012), and many other events. So keep it up but it may take longer then you hoped and a good message therapist is priceless. I have kept up with regular message, try to keep doing stretch cords etc., at this point 10 years later, I feel like I never had a surgery.

  • This is a great thread for me to be reading since reading this forum is the closest thing to swimming as I can get lately. I am just over 12 weeks post -op from Rotator cuff surgery. My surgery was Nov 7 2016. I had complete rotator cuff tear . my Dr. gave me the greenlight to get back in water this week... suggested progressing slow with breaststroke. I may wait several more weeks till I get a little more overhead ROM. I'll admit as much as I want to get back in water there is a fear factor that I may damage the repair somehow, just don't have enough confidence in my shoulder yet. So thinking about waiting another 4 weeks or so. I am in PT 2x week, and like lakespray I am getting massage 1x per week in fact the surgeon recommended it and I go to a specific Neuromuscular massage specialist that he sent me to. Started going for the massage 8 weeks post op. I think it is working great and plan to continue it.I have to say hearing what some of you have accomplished post shoulder surgery is very inspirational. I was training towards a 10k distance to try to do my first marathon swim when my shoulder finally gave out on me. Keep in mind my shoulder had been bad for many years( heavy weight training when I was younger in my 20's and 30's- I'm 47 now). The swimming finished off what was a damaged shoulder before I even seriously started swimming. I have been through surgery recovery before ( 2 lower back surgeries, and a cervical spine fusion when I was 24 yr old) the neck surgery was football related, back surgeries were a combination of football , heavy powerlifting when I was younger, and genetics. I will try not to catch up to swimmer25k on the back surgeries! Thanks for all who have posted on shoulder surgery-I have gained something by reading each of them, and any suggestions on swimming progression once I get back in the pool -is appreciated. Wow....MIMS after shoulder surgery! I know there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

  • MoCoMoCo Worcester, MAMember

    I'm currently focusing on swimming because my running/cycling is mostly on hold due to what turned out to be post-traumatic arthritis in my knee. I've been off-and-on injured (with a long and varied list of things) since 2009 when I crashed my bike, so I've had all sorts of things (or all the things) on pause at any given moment.

    The MOST important thing you can do for yourself while you are injured and sidelined, in addition to working at PT/rehab exercises like it's your job, is to get a full movement screen and treat it as an opportunity to work on whatever weakness you have that might cause the next problem. Most of my lower body problems (that were not caused by impacting hard things at speed) are related to a lower back/hip flexor problem. So letting the sprained ankle heal was great, but without fixing the other issues, I was far more likely to re-sprain that ankle. Figure out what you can be working on, do your non-arm based strength work (including core work), and whatever cardio you can manage. Then when you do get back in the pool, you'll be in a much better position than if you'd just sat on your bum and done PT for the shoulder.

    Best of luck to you. It's so frustrating when you can't do the stuff that really brings you joy.

    (Oh, and GO VOLUNTEER. That helps you still feel connected to the sport(s) you love, and gives back a little).

  • amkonetamkonet Columbus, Ohio, USAMember

    This thread has been great for me to read. As I start fantasizing about doing some Bigger Swims, there's a part of me that's saying I need to reign it in, since I already have minor shoulder issues (impingement syndrome, GIRD). I'm young at 33, but have developed some weird stroke issues since I re-entered the water a few years ago when I started triathlons. I'm fixing my entry (HOW did I develop a thumb-first entry?!), but it takes constant focus on my technique and I think I'll revert to bad habits during a race until it becomes second nature. I also think I could benefit from finally learning to breath bilaterally, because I think my rotation is off. My right shoulder is the problem, and I exclusively breathe to the right. When I try to breathe to the left, I take on water and lose my rhythm.

    Obviously I want to avoid surgery, and will do my PT/work on technique, but it's encouraging to see success stories if I have to go down that road.

  • This thread is very encouraging. I just had shoulder surgery myself. I also feel like I'll never move my left arm again, but I am also looking forward to rebuilding my technique and getting stronger.

    I had a bicep tenodesis and acromion spur removal. From the time I stopped swimming on it to my surgery, it's been about a year. I'm going to have to relearn how to swim.

    Age is a factor in these injuries. My surgeon said that many people over 40 have minor tears that don't cause any problems, but most of those people aren't swimming the EC. In my case, the damage probably started early with other sports and was exacerbated by swimming more miles than ever with an uneven stroke in water much too hot for training.

    Thanks to those who posted surgical recovery stories. They let me know what I can probably expect as I recover, although mileage varies.

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