Torn shoulder tendon/rotator cuff: arthroscopic surgery, or no?

About a year ago, I fell off my bike and stuck my arms out to catch myself instead of rolling. I’ve done this many times, but this time I was either going faster, hit the ground at the wrong angle or had age catch up with me, but I jarred my left shoulder in such a way that the pain never really went away. By last November (7 months after the incident), the pain was sometimes sharp enough at night that I had to put ice on my shoulder, right near the collarbone, to be able to fall asleep.

I had been doing a physical training regimen of lifting weights and doing push-ups, and gave it a rest of 6 weeks or so to see if it would help my shoulder. It did and yet it didn’t: I don’t have to ice my shoulder down any more at night, but I can’t move my left arm behind my back or in a throwing motion without sharp pain, so that resuming lifting weights or doing a lot of push-ups has met with trouble.

I finally got around to seeing an orthopedic specialist, who took an MRI of my shoulder and told me I had torn a tendon in my shoulder and my rotator cuff. My options are rehab or arthroscopic surgery, which would also require 6 months or so of post-op rehab.

It’s a little scary to consider surgery for the first time in my life. On the other hand arthroscopic surgery is fairly routine (it’s in the news for athletes all the time anyway), is an in-and-out procedure (no hospital stay) and is the only way to actually repair the tears; no amount of rehab will do that, only build up the supporting muscles to help compensate for the injury (which I think I already did while working out).

Has anybody else had experience with choosing one or the other? How’d it go?

My brother-in-law had arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder and it only left 3 little scars. Little meaning about 1cm. If you’ve got the rehab time, insurance etc…etc…do it! 6 Mos rehab seems waaaay more than my BIL had to endure…but then he’s a bit of a meathead who likes surfing, lifting, rugby etc…etc…I don’t think he waited a month to do most of what he had been doing pre-op.

I went to the doctor with a badly hurting shoulder (I could only raise the arm about 45 degrees), no health insurance, and little cash. The doctor said it looked like a torn rotator cuff, and I was probably facing surgery after first getting an MRI, neither of which I could afford at the time. I opted to let it heal on its own.

The first year was pretty uncomfortable - couldn’t sleep on my right side at all, and had to learn to perform lots of tasks left-handed.

After a couple of years, I had pretty good range of motion, but sub-par strength and endurance in the shoulder. Especially endurance.

Seven years after the injury, I proclaimed the shoulder 100% healed.

If possible, I’d elect to have the surgery.

Depending upon the nature of the tear, healing on its own may not even be possible. When my rotator cuff tore, half of it ended up retracted into the shoulder joint. They had to pull/stretch it back out (with some sort of pliers, as I understand it) so that they could sew it back to the other half. The point being that in my case there was no chance of the tendon reattaching itself over time.

Frankly, if you can do yours arthoscopically, I’d go for it. If it were to later get as bad as mine got, they might have to open your shoulder up like they did mine.

Multiple disclaimers: (1) I am not a doctor; (2) everyone’s injuries are different; and (3) surgical technologies have changed a lot since my 1992 procedure.