Why Is My Shoulder Stiff After Rotator Cuff Surgery? (Video)

Rotator Cuff SurgeryIn prior posts, I have discussed what rotator cuff tears are, what causes them and how they are best treated, both non operatively and with rotator cuff surgery. What I haven’t yet discussed, in detail, are the problems that can occur with rotator cuff tear treatment.  Paramount among those problems is stiffness.  Stiffness unfortunately often occurs after both nonoperative rotator cuff tear treatment and after rotator cuff surgery.  Let’s take a look at the latter.

Rotator Cuff Surgery

Rotator Cuff Tear Surgery

Rotator Cuff Tear Repair

Surgery for a rotator cuff tear involves tying the torn rotator cuff tendon to the humerus where it has pulled off from.  The tendon needs at least three months to heal to the humerus.  Until then, it must remain securely tied to the bone.  As a result, the postoperative treatment starts out slowly.  Typically the arm is supported in a sling for 4-6 weeks.  Although therapy is usually started shortly after surgery, it usually progresses cautiously for the first three months, limiting motion and stress on the repair.  All of this is done to try to prevent a catastrophic failure of the repair.

Shoulder Stiffness

There are a number of reasons that the shoulder may become stiff after rotator cuff surgery.  One of the leading reasons is the common post operative course that I described above. In essence, early on, your surgeon is trying to thread the needle between limiting shoulder activity so as to maximize tendon to bone healing while trying to move the shoulder as much as possible in order to reduce the risk of postoperative stiffness.  This restriction, although giving a better chance for your rotator cuff to heal, can often lead to stiffness all by itself.

Why? Well joints in general tend to get stiff after trauma…and surgery is traumatic. Many of the joints’ soft tissues tend to shorten and stiffen.  Why this happens, we don’t know.  But it happens.  Additionally, without much motion, scar tissue has time to develop. This can sometimes result in thick bands that may connect the humerus to other stable areas of the shoulder and restrict, or in some cases prevent, motion. Furthermore this phenomena is more common in some joints than others.  For instance, the knee stiffens more than the hip.  And as a general rule, the upper extremity more than the lower. Specifically, the shoulder tends to get really stiff after trauma…and surgery.

Secondly, there is also the potential for not only stiffness to develop as we discussed above but an actual secondary frozen shoulder may as well. Many of the groups susceptible to frozen shoulder, also commonly have rotator cuff tears and ultimately rotator cuff surgery: the middle aged, following trauma, and of course, following surgery, for example.

And finally…There is pain.

Rotator cuff surgery is very painful. We do many things to reduce the pain but the surgery and particularly the recovery, is still painful. Additionally, the recovery is long.  Recovering from rotator cuff surgery is not a sprint but rather a marathon…and a painful one at that.  Pain can prevent effort…or limit it.  And recovering from rotator cuff surgery and reducing or preventing stiffness requires effort…and lots of it. So if your in pain and can’t perform the rehab that’s needed, your shoulder may stiffen from any or all of the reasons discussed above. As you stiffen, the greater your pain will be when moving your shoulder and the more effort that will be needed to overcome the stiffness.  So pain can lead to a vicious cycle of progressive increased pain and stiffness, feeding on itself and causing even greater pain and stiffness.

What To Do?

So the question really isn’t “Why is my shoulder stiff after rotator cuff surgery?” but rather “Why isn’t it?”. Stiffness of some degree is common.  Not having any stiffness at any time is not. Recovering from rotator cuff surgery is like swimming against the current. With the current being your shoulder’ tendency to get stiff.

Early Stiffness

With that said, stiffness early on is usually a good thing.  Huh? Well the weak link in your repair is the repair.  The tendon is attached to the bone by small stitches.  Initially just tiny strings are holding your repair together.  As the tendon heals to the bone, the repair becomes stronger and the stitches less relevant. But until then, if you gain too much motion, too soon, you probably gained that motion by pulling the repair apart.  So stiffness early is usually a good thing.

Fortunately, this stiffness often will work its way out with time, effort and continued physical therapy.  Over time, your pain will usually decrease and your tissues themselves will often slowly begin to lengthen and loosen on their own.   After the tendon heals to the bone, the pace and intensity of your therapy can and should be increased….leading to further gains in your shoulder’s range of motion.  So if your shoulder has not become too stiff before this point, much, if not all of your motion may be regained.

Late Stiffness

But when it isn’t, there are still other solutions.  Sometimes the ultimate loss of motion is minimal.  Most joints have extra motion.  The shoulder more so than many.  So a loss of some motion will often either not be noted or at least not be bothersome.  Usually most activities, whether those needed for daily living or even recreation, will not be hampered.  However if they are, a manipulation of your shoulder or a simple arthroscopic surgery can almost always restore your motion to satisfactory levels.  Fortunately, this surgery is much simpler and easier to recover from than the initial rotator cuff surgery.

Two Boneheads Video Series

For more about this common, complex issue, watch the following video in which The Two Boneheads, Dr. Howard Luks and myself, have another hopefully informative discussion in which we discuss this issue in detail.




  1. Mike


    The real questions are as follows:

    When do you start to get more aggressive with stiff shoulders post op? Iannotti, Williams, just about all surgeons now like 6 weeks in a sling/abduction splint, little to no movement. Start PT (PROM) there, add AAROM at 8 weeks for everything not “massive” (small to large tears). By 9-10 weeks patients are pretty stiff… all be it that at 3 months there is a pretty good tendon to bone healing mechanism established in a successful repair. Do you wait for 12 weeks or do you start more aggressive stretches at 8-10 weeks?

    • Jeffrey H. Berg, M.D.

      I use the first three months to just keep the patient “in the game”, going very slow as you outlined. Not really trying to make gains but rather just keeping the patient as “close” as possible. At three months, when as you noted, there is expected satisfactory tendon to bone healing, I start to get more aggressive. With this approach, I expect to see improvements in range of motion and functional
      improvement…and patient happiness…by 4-5 months. If I don’t see satisfactory and improving range of motion by 5 months, I confirm satisfactory tendon healing by MRI and if confirmed, I perform a manipulation. If unclear, I perform an arthroscopy and assess the rotator cuff repair integrity and lysis of adhesions.

  2. Kim Saunders

    I had rotator cuff surgery 3/21/19, I’m 2 months post-op in physical therapy, my question is my shoulder is stiff, I can’t raise my arm barely 100 degrees when seated and standing, when laying on my side I can is easily raise at 140 degrees. Once I get to that point when raising my arm standing it don’t go no higher.

    • Jeffrey H. Berg, M.D.

      Ms. Saunder’s it is very common to have stiffness at this point after surgery. It many ways the stiffness is protective. The weak link in the repair for the first three months is the repair site. For some, if they have regained too much motion too soon, they may have disrupted the reair, not stretched out the muscle. I find for many of my patients, they may not begin to regain their motion until 4+ months after surgery. I have my patient’s continue PT throughout and if their ROM fails to be improving by 5 months, I consider addressing the stiffness surgically. I would suggest discussing your individual status with your surgeon, as every case is unique.

  3. Kris

    I am post- op almost 9 months and still have stiffness with some pain. I’m 65 with arthritis will my shoulder be ok?

    • Jeffrey H. Berg, M.D.

      Kristian obviously without knowing all the details and examining you, it is hard to give you specific information. In general terms, usually full recovery from that surgery can take a full year. Typically however by 9 months patients should feel good and have nearly normal range of motion. Depending on the degree of your arthritis, this alone can explain persistent pain and stiffness and may not respond to surgery for a rotator cuff repair. I suggest going back to your surgeon and discussing this with him or her.

  4. Jay

    Does arthritic pain seem like overall tightness? Had Rotator cuff surgery 8 months ago and have gained good ROM but recently getting to the last full bit of ROM shoulder has been stiff and achy. Once stretched a bit, no pain and ROM is continued good

    • Jeffrey H. Berg, M.D.

      I am sure that if you had arthritis, your doctor would have noted that and mentioned. Stiffness can take a full year to resolve and sometimes need further surgery to help. Speak with your surgeon.

  5. Kim

    Hey Doc,
    I am 10 weeks post op for a posterior labrum repair requiring 4 anchors, everything else was fine. Im still very stiff. I have about 35 degrees external rotation (straight out in front), and have almost no internal rotation (cant even get my arm behind my back). Abduction i can actively raise to shoulder height however still feels and has the “locked up” look about it. Flexion is around 120-130 degrees. Hurts the most to reach arm across the front of my body. I started pt at the 4 week mark for twice a week and am now going once a week. It is mostly sore and stiff in the morning. I can use it for most tasks below shoulder level but have been trying to use it pain free at its extremities to help progress. I had the exact same operation on my left shoulder a couple of years ago and contracted some degree of frozen shoulder requiring a second surgery a year later. Helped alot with pain and have at least 90 percent rom back in that arm after second op. I am a 31 year old male btw.

    My question, is my current progress for this type of procedure “normal” or would you consider me behind? When should i expect to achieve my max rom?

    Thanks for your time

    • Jeffrey H. Berg, M.D.


      I’m sorry to say that not all labral repairs are the same or even behave the same after surgery. So it is impossible to give you specific thoughts on your particular case. In general, being stiff at this point would not be uncommon but rather would be quite common. The labrum does not heal to the bone firmly for ~3 months and therefore aggressive stretching before then can, in some cases, be detrimental to the repair. I find that most patients “turn the corner” around 4 – 5 months. But complete ROM can take longer and even up to 1 year in some. You may want to discuss with your surgeon about their thoughts on your specific case.
      Hope this helps. Best of luck.

  6. carry emerson

    I am five months post left rotor cuff repair for full thickness tear. I didn’t get to therapy until 6/21//2019 almost a full month post surgery. at this point I have been in therapy for 5 months. I have some ability to raise the arm but not overhead for very long and, not without assistance of the right hand, my main concern is the constant daily pain and stiffness of the left arm. As the day progresses the arm feels heavy from hanging down and very painful (dull achy feeling). I am still unable to sleep on the left side and stll on no lifting restriction.

    • Jeffrey H. Berg, M.D.

      I am sorry to hear that you are having trouble. Obviously I do not know enough about your particular situation but in general terms, by this point I would expect fewer symptoms and better function. The two things I would be concerned most about with a patient having your symptoms at this point post-op would be postop stiffness (arthrofibrosis) and inadequate tendon healing. The treatment for these two entities differs and therefore I recommend returning to your surgeon so that they can determine the specific issue and the best treatment going forward. be well.


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