Friends, this is a follow-up on my progress since dislocating my shoulder on Valentines Day this year. I hope my experience gives others in this situation a bit of insight and no small amount of hope.
I had a bad fall in February and suffered a pretty good sized labral tear and partial tear of the supraspinatus - one of the structures in the rotator cuff. Saw two of the best shoulder docs in Maine and they both told me no immediate surgery. One said just to do range of motion and the other some stretching exercises. I met with a physical therapist a few times. She gave me a pulley rig that allows one arm to stretch out the other. And so I set off on this conservative approach. And it went well. Throughout March and April I made some progress. I increased my range of motion and flexibility. But I still had a very considerable amount of pain from the extreme tightness in the shoulder. And it remained very weak with considerable atrophy from disuse and a possible brachial plexus injury.
I was getting discouraged from the lack of real gains, sleepless nights on the couch and absence from the gym where I would normally go at the end of nearly every work day - my drug of choice.
I saw the therapist about a month ago and she congratulated me on my "progress," and felt that I had gotten as much as I was likely to from the cable rig and stretching routine. Bummer. I knew I was going to see the surgeon in mid May and I was at the point that surgery seemed like a reasonable option. The therapist said I had maxed out but I still had significant limitations and was no where near where I wanted to be. The pain was unrelenting and I felt like chewing off my arm. And my other shoulder was starting to hurt from over use.
But before going the surgical route, I decided to take a more aggressive approach. It was how I have dealt with less serious injuries before. I figured that the tears were likely stabilized and even healed. Around May 1 I went back in the gym. I started doing light, close to the body exercises like bicep curls and tricep work. Then I added in a bit of back work, like seated rows and pull downs done on an angle. It hurt like a bastard the first time - but a good hurt. And the next day, my pain level was down and my range of motion was up.
Over the past month I have been increasing my gym work with every session - adding exercises that more directly challenge the shoulder, like adducter and abductor cables and even some light chest work - all designed to hit the shoulder from every angle. I am slowly increasing the weights as well. My comfortable range of motion is increasing. I can now reach in to my back pocket and almost tuck in my shirt. And my muscle tone is returning and I can now sleep in a bed.
My progress is not just from the weight lifting. I developed a set of (sometimes) torturous stretching exercises once I had maxed out on the cables. I developed a series of sets for my 75 minute commute along the quiet roads of Maine. With one, I reach up and walk my arm back (palm up) and to the side along the ceiling. When the joint relaxes, I push the hand to increase the angle to stress the joint. With another I grab the suicide handle and push the elbow in towards the door (do this only at stop signs/lights). One of the hardest is reaching behind my seat, keeping the arm at as close to a 45 as possible. And I also lean back, put my outstretched arm behind the passenger seat and then lean forward.
At home and in the office, the most advanced I developed involves putting my arm behind my back, bent at a 45 degree angle. Here is the fun part. I then lay down on top of the arm in that position. The pressure of my body weight against the arm which is sandwiched in between is a great stretch but one that must be done slowly and carefully. I also lay on my belly and then raise my arm so it lays, at a 45, on a low table or chair seat. I then relax the shoulder and let the weight of my body slowly stretch out the joint. All of this is designed to stretch out the ligaments and bust up scar tissue that binds the joint. That is where the pain now comes from - not the actual tears.
I am now 3.5 months into the most difficult injury I have ever had, physically and emotionally. I am making more progress every week and have regained about 70% of my strength and ROM, though the stamina is not there yet.
I have learned a lot about my body from this experience. I got good advice from two docs who declined to run to do surgery. But in the end, what worked for me was taking a more aggressive albeit conservative approach. And that is what has made all the difference. But it has been a lot of work, and there has been no small amount of pain. But I learned how to push through the good pain and stop at the bad pain. That, too, is a very valuable lesson.
I fully expect to be back on the slopes when the snow flies - have already bought my Sugarloaf pass. The mountain gave me a credit for 50% for my pass and that of my wife towards tickets for the upcoming season. Very righteous of them.
I hope my experience gives some hope to anyone who, at this moment, may feel that a real recovery without surgery is not possible. It is. But it will take some serious and smart work. I stress that this worked for me, in my circumstances and with my injury. I do not encourage anyone to try what I have done without checking with their doc or therapist. My only advise is that you take charge of your recovery, no matter where that takes you.