Elbow Recovery After Surgery: From A Patient’s Perspective

by | Oct 19, 2021 | 12 comments

A Patient’s Perspective After Elbow Surgery

If you’re someone who’s had or is having elbow surgery, this article is for you. Elbow recovery after surgery can become exhausting, overwhelming, and emotional. Here’s an article from a patient’s perspective about elbow recovery after surgery.

The Accident

Most people who require elbow surgery do so after some type of accident or injury. I’m sure you didn’t wake up this morning, thinking to yourself, “I think I’d like to have elbow surgery this month…”

Nope. Highly unlikely.

What’s much more realistic is some type of scenario like this…

You wake up early, take your bike out for a quick ride before work, and BAM! Crash to the ground, falling off of the bike, shattering your elbow on the sidewalk.

Or, insert whatever accident, mistake, injury, or error occurred in your life that is now causing you to need elbow surgery.

As a past elbow surgery patient, I was told many, many times that elbow fractures are one of the top three most serious and difficult. Elbow surgeries rank up there with knee surgery and, get this, middle finger surgery. Apparently, middle fingers, knees, and elbows are the most challenging.

The Surgery

Once it’s confirmed that you need surgery, they will set a surgery date. You’ll meet with the surgeon who will review the procedure, its risks and benefits, and what to expect immediately after surgery.

Now, most surgeons will already start discussing elbow recovery after surgery even before the surgery takes place. When I had surgery, the surgeon scheduled me with a physical therapy (PT) appointment the very same day the team removed my hard cast.

Here’s where things might go awry.

When I fractured my elbow, the surgeon who was going to perform my elbow surgery told me that some of his patients are up, back at full activity, working, and into their life as it was prior to surgery in THREE DAYS to THREE WEEKS.

Fully back at normal functioning of life in just three days to three weeks after surgery.

Uhh, NO!

No way, no how.

Remember, I had elbow surgery. On August 14, 2020 at 10 a.m., I had an elbow surgery procedure done. And I am here to tell you that after the hard cast came off, and I went to that first PT on that same day, I was NOT back to my normal functioning and level of activity in three days to three weeks’ time.

Elbow Recovery After Surgery: The True Timeline

Now, I am not even going to write about the complications I experienced after elbow surgery. That’s not fair since not everyone will go through all the issues that I did. That’s fine.

Even if I had no complications at all, there’s no way I was back at my normal, fully functioning, independent state I was prior to elbow surgery.

Trust me. I talked about this with my PT team. A lot.

Even if everything went according to the timeline, my therapist mapped out how many weeks I would attend three times a week PT sessions. It was going to be eight weeks. And, how did my PT therapist get to eight weeks? Here’s how…

Elbow recovery after surgery involves a variety of different activities and exercises to get the elbow joint back to full range of motion. The elbow joint moves in many ways. It hinges, forwards and backwards. It rotates, on a socket. It twists, back and forth. So, the elbow surgery patient has to engage in multiple therapeutic activities to get the elbow moving.

My PT therapist used a measurement tool, called a goniometer, to measure the number of degrees that I was able to hinge at the elbow, forwards and backwards. The goniometer measured how far I could extend my arm straight and how far I could get my arm bent at my elbow. Well, her goal was to get my elbow to move five additional degrees. And, she did a mathematical calculation, of adding five degrees per week that got us to the eight weeks of PT sessions.

Again, this is if everything was going fine and dandy. No complications. No additional issues. Just eight straight weeks of PT three times a week. Oh, and don’t forget about the hourly exercises that the PT staff sent me home with.

Even if everything went smoothly and I only had to go through PT for eight weeks… that’s still eight weeks! Get it?!?? Three times a week, eight weeks of…

  • Obtaining a ride to get to PT: you likely will not be able to drive… if you are taking narcotic pain medications AND since your elbow won’t extend at first, you cannot reach the steering wheel
  • Driving to PT: depending on where you live… it could take longer or shorter… but let’s average it out and say that your trip to PT is 30 minutes (so, that’s an hour… 30 minutes there and back)
  • Attending PT: sessions are about an hour… at first, they may be longer and then they might shorten up… but that also depends on how many therapeutic activities you have to do
  • Getting home and settled, after PT: using the restroom, eating something, etc.… be real… you don’t just get back to your house and are magically ready for work/kids/school/life
  • Feeling exhausted after PT: it takes a LOT out of you, especially those first few weeks
  • Doing your hourly exercises while you’re not at PT: every hour, on the hour… and even if you don’t do them hourly, at the very least you have to do them six times a day

Elbow Recovery After Surgery: Don’t Let it Take Over

Elbow recovery after surgery is intense. Don’t let it run your life. Sure, you have to focus on elbow rehab. Trust me, I heard it over and over again… “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” But don’t let the recovery process take over everything.

The timeline for recovery varies. Depending on your situation, elbow recovery after surgery can become intense, frustrating, and very tiring. That’s another thing I heard time and time again, “Each patient is different. Each elbow is unique. Each surgical outcome is one-of-a-kind.” I’d ask for answers and rarely get them because nobody could predict how long the recovery time would be.

Eventually, my elbow started improving. And with feeling better came the desire to do more. I started practicing qigong daily, to allow my elbow to move fluidly with flow. Weaving in holistic modalities was the best thing for my elbow recovery after surgery.

Integrating yoga, meditation, reiki, and other holistic practices made me feel stronger, increased my energy levels, helped me sleep at night, and improved my mood.

Don’t let your elbow recovery get you down. Keep with your therapeutic treatment plan. Lean on the support of friends and family. Talk to your care providers often and honestly. Listen to your body. Honor yourself and allow the healing to happen.

Ready to heal after elbow surgery? Check us out and come join us!

About the Author: Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, HNB-BC, RYT (200) is a board-certified holistic nurse, registered yoga instructor, and reiki master.

Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is a certified coach and avid meditator.

Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and playful pit bull. She enjoys gardening, jigsaw puzzles, farming, music, and hiking.

12 Comments

  1. joy

    Going through this now.
    stupid fall – casts – screws in and now trying to get my arm to unfreeze and straighten!

    Reply
  2. Connellan Josie

    I’m at 3 months since surgery. Still don’t have full range and still get pain. But I am building up strength and can see and feel improvement.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth

      Good to hear! Keep it up!! Sending healing vibes.

      Reply
  3. Leon

    Glad I found this! I had a very bad bike crash 1 month ago and the surgery 3 weeks ago.

    The problem is that I am a photographer and there is no camera for lefty! My job is seriously disturbed and I really hope my right arm can get back to normal – at least to take photos (with heavy camera) to make my living 🙁

    Speaking of road biking… I think I have PTSD and never touch it again…

    Reply
      • Leon

        Thanks Elizabeth. so it is more than three months now. My recovery did quite well. There is occasional pain, but my elbow can function normally overall. My doctor said it went well and he would expect me one year later to remove the plate. I got most of the confidence back although I still did not have chance to be on the road bike but no hurry.

        I think this is a traumatic experience. I am glad that I found you here, and I believe we all are going to get back to normal. Be strong! We can do much better!

        Reply
        • Elizabeth

          Thank you so much!! Glad to hear your healing journey is progressing well. Positive vibes and healing energy to you!!

          Reply
  4. Lee

    Two weeks ago, I broke my left distal humerus falling straight down on my left elbow while tripping off of a canoe. I’m a 52 year old male.

    I had surgery last week. My left hand is still swollen and numb. Pinky finger is even number and does not move with the rest of the fingers. I am concerned that I will never regain control of the fingers and never be able to type again. I’m also concerned that I won’t be able to drive again, since I drive with only my left hand and a spinner wheel.

    This is my fourth fracture, since I have idiopathic osteopenia despite taking calcium and vitamin D supplements. Parathyroid is normal, blood calcium and D25 are normal, and alkaline phosphatase level is normal (ruling out Paget’s). I get another DXA bone density scan next week. 2.5 years ago my Z score was -2. I may need to take bisophosphonates.

    Five years ago I shattered my right humerus in a bicycle accident, and it is now totally gone, and there’s no metal implant. Three rotator cuffs were damaged during surgery, and my shoulder got too infected to repair them. I had over 10 right shoulder surgeries. I cannot raise my right arm above my chest, and my right hand above my head.

    My orthopedic surgeon expects my left elbow to heal in a couple of weeks and hasn’t prescribed physical therapy, but I think it will take much longer to heal, and that daily exercises are needed. I also bought a hand massager.

    I only found out after surgery that my nerves were “cut” to go around the plate. I wish I had known this ahead of time, because typing is more important to me than heavy lifting (it’s necessary all day for my job).

    When the nerve block wore off around 9 hours after surgery, I had 10/10 pain in both my left hand and in the elbow incision site. I was given morphine and hydrocodone, but there was only mild relief. I have had better pain relief with dilaudid. I was screaming in jolts of pain. It lasted around an hour.

    A friend who had a similar experience said that he regained control of his hand after a couple of weeks. I just hope I do, because I’ve already lost the right humerus and all associated shoulder movements, and even though I’m right-handed, I have learned to use my left hand.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth

      Wow. That’s a lot to handle. So sorry you’ve had to cope with all of this. Sending healing vibes and positive energy your way.

      Reply
  5. Lynn

    My cousin is scheduled for elbow surgery this Tuesday. Can anyone give me some ideas of things that will help make her life easier and/or more convenient during her recovery? She will not be completely alone, she has a 50 year old, special needs daughter who lives with her but she has limited capabilities. Any tips would be appreciated

    Reply
    • Elizabeth

      Sure! You can check out the book, What Happens After Elbow Surgery, here: https://amzn.to/3cFZh6j.

      Reply

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