Shoulder Pain After Surgery: Causes, Duration and Relief

Apr 23, 2024 | 5 min read

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Shoulder pain after surgery, often resulting from procedures like laparoscopic surgeries using carbon dioxide gas, can vary in duration and intensity based on the surgery type and individual factors. 

Managing this condition effectively is crucial for enhancing recovery and minimizing discomfort during the healing process.

shoulder pain after surgery

Understanding Shoulder Pain After Surgery

Shoulder pain after surgery is common, whether the procedure involves the shoulder directly or not. For instance, even surgeries performed on different parts of the body, like the abdomen, can cause shoulder discomfort. 

This is often seen in minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries. During these procedures, doctors use gas to inflate the abdomen, creating space to work. This gas can irritate the diaphragm, a muscle under your lungs because it shares nerve pathways with the shoulder. This irritation can lead to shoulder pain, known as referred pain, which is pain felt in a part of the body other than its actual source.

A study from the Journal of the Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons (JSLS) highlights that more than 90% of patients begin to feel shoulder pain not on the day of surgery but on the first day following the procedure.

Duration and Intensity of Post-Surgical Shoulder Pain

Understanding how long the pain lasts after shoulder surgery and its intensity is crucial for setting realistic recovery expectations. The duration and severity of shoulder pain can vary significantly depending on the type of surgery performed and the individual's pain tolerance and recovery rate.

  • Laparoscopic Surgery: Typically, shoulder pain after laparoscopic surgery can last from a few days to a couple of weeks. The pain is usually due to the carbon dioxide gas used in the procedure, which can irritate the diaphragm.
  • Major Shoulder Surgery: For surgeries directly involving the shoulder joint, such as rotator cuff repairs, the recovery and pain duration can extend from a few weeks to several months, with pain intensity gradually decreasing over time.

Causes of Shoulder Pain Following Surgery

Understanding the causes of shoulder pain after surgery is essential for identifying the best relief strategies. Below are some of the main causes:

Gas Pain in Shoulder After Surgery

Referred Pain from Carbon Dioxide Gas: Common in laparoscopic surgery, the introduction of gas into the abdominal cavity can lead to shoulder pain. This is a temporary condition as the body absorbs the gas over a few days.

Surgical Technique

  • Direct Impact: Surgeries that involve manipulation or repair near the shoulder area can directly cause pain due to tissue disturbance.
  • Positioning During Surgery: Certain surgical positions, especially those that require the patient to remain in one position for an extended period, can strain the shoulder, leading to post-operative pain.
  • Referred Pain: Pain in the shoulder can also result from referred pain, where the actual injury site is elsewhere, but the pain is felt in the shoulder due to shared nerve pathways.
  • Nerve Damage: Accidental nerve damage during surgery can lead to shoulder pain, though this is less common.

In summary, shoulder pain after surgery, including laparoscopic procedures, can arise from a variety of factors. Understanding these causes and the expected duration and intensity of the pain can help individuals better prepare for their recovery journey.

Treatment for Shoulder Pain After Surgery

Effective management of shoulder pain after surgery depends significantly on the type of procedure performed. Below are detailed treatment options categorized by the surgical approach:

Treatment After Shoulder Operation

  • Medication: Over-the-counter pain relievers or prescribed medications are often used to manage pain and inflammation. In severe cases, stronger pain relief options may be recommended by healthcare providers.
  • Physical Therapy: Engaging in physical therapy is critical for regaining strength and mobility in the shoulder. A therapist will tailor exercises that focus on stretching and strengthening the shoulder muscles, enhancing flexibility and function.
  • Cold and Heat Therapy: Immediately after surgery, applying ice packs can help minimize swelling and numb the pain. As recovery progresses, switching to heat through heating pads can aid in relaxing and loosening tight muscles, further alleviating pain.
  • Surgical Interventions: If pain persists and is due to complications from the initial surgery, such as improper healing or mechanical issues in the shoulder, additional surgical interventions may be required.
  • Supportive Pillow: Using an ergonomically designed pillow that supports the natural curve of the neck and shoulders can help maintain proper alignment. This reduces stress on the shoulder during recovery, particularly during sleep.

How to Relieve Shoulder Pain After Laparoscopic Surgery at Home

  • Gentle Exercises: Simple exercises like shoulder rolls and arm lifts can help to alleviate discomfort by releasing any trapped gas used during laparoscopic procedures. These movements encourage the absorption and expulsion of the gas, easing the referred pain in the shoulder.
  • Heat Therapy: Applying a warm compress or a heating pad to the shoulder area can increase blood flow, which helps to soothe and relax muscle spasms and stiffness associated with postoperative pain.
  • Proper Rest and Positioning: Resting in a semi-upright position, possibly with the aid of pillows, can decrease the pressure on the abdominal and diaphragmatic areas, reducing the impact of referred pain in the shoulder.
  • Stay Hydrated: Keeping hydrated aids the body's natural processes, including the absorption and elimination of gases used during surgery. Drinking sufficient water can therefore help mitigate shoulder pain.
  • Walking: Light walking promotes overall physical health and aids in gastrointestinal movement, which is beneficial for expelling gases that may cause referred shoulder pain.
  • Over-the-Counter Pain Relief: For mild to moderate pain, over-the-counter NSAIDs can provide significant relief by reducing inflammation. It's important to follow dosing recommendations and consult with a healthcare provider for prolonged pain.
  • Supportive Pillow: A supportive pillow, especially one designed for post-surgical recovery, can ensure the shoulder remains in a comfortable and stable position during sleep, preventing additional strain and promoting healing.

When to Seek Medical Help

While some degree of shoulder pain is expected after surgery, there are certain signs and symptoms that indicate the need for immediate medical attention:

  • Persistent or Worsening Pain: If your shoulder pain does not improve with prescribed home treatments or if it worsens over time, it could be a sign of complications such as infection, blood clots, or other serious conditions.
  • Severe Pain: Sudden, intense pain in the shoulder that is not relieved by pain medication or rest should be evaluated by a doctor as it may indicate an underlying issue that requires immediate treatment.
  • Limited Mobility: Difficulty moving the shoulder or arm, especially if it worsens, can suggest nerve damage or other complications that might require medical intervention.
  • Signs of Infection: Redness, swelling, warmth, or drainage at the surgical site, or fever, should prompt a visit to the doctor. These symptoms can indicate an infection that needs prompt treatment.
  • Numbness or Tingling: These sensations can be a sign of nerve damage or compression and should be assessed by a healthcare provider.
  • Changes in Skin Color or Temperature: If you notice that the skin around your shoulder is turning pale, or blue, or feels unusually cold, seek medical attention as these could be signs of a circulation problem.

Additionally, using an online tool Symptom Checker can be a helpful tool in assessing your symptoms and understanding potential causes before consulting your healthcare provider. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Key Takeaways

  • Shoulder pain after surgery can result from various factors, including the type of surgery and the individual's response to the procedure.
  • The length of time you'll experience pain after shoulder surgery can vary, depending on the surgical method used and your personal process.
  • Simple at-home strategies, such as gentle exercises and heat therapy, can significantly alleviate shoulder pain after laparoscopic surgery.
  • Consulting healthcare professionals is essential for a personalized treatment plan, especially for managing post-surgical shoulder pain effectively.

If you want to read more about post-operative complications, we have articles about Bloating After Surgery and Anxiety After Surgery.

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