What Shoulder Replacement Can Do for You

Doctor applying shoulder tape to patient
Inti St Clair/Getty Images

A shoulder replacement surgery is a treatment for severe arthritis of the shoulder joint. Most people with shoulder arthritis can find relief with non-surgical treatments. Because we don't walk around on our arms, shoulder arthritis can typically be managed more easily than hip or knee arthritis—that is why hip and knee replacements are much more common. That said, some patients still can't find relief, even despite appropriate treatment, and therefore decide to pursue shoulder replacement.


Much like hip and knee replacement implants, the majority of shoulder replacement implants are made of metal and plastic. The implants are held in the bone either with bone cement or by being tightly wedged into place. A metal ball is used to recreate the worn out top of the arm bone (the humeral head) and a plastic cup replaces the worn out socket of the shoulder blade (the glenoid). The metal ball is attached to an implant that is held in the hollow center of the arm bone.


Shoulder replacement surgery is performed under general anesthesia. Often an anesthesiologist will also administer a regional nerve block so that shoulder pain is minimized when you awaken from the anesthesia. The surgical procedure lasts about two hours, but the full time in the operating room may be more than three hours to allow for preparation and recovery. The incision for the surgery is along the front of the shoulder joint and usually about four to six inches long.

Your surgeon begins by removing the damaged, arthritic bone and cartilage. Special instruments are then used to align the artificial shoulder in proper position. Temporary implants called "trial implants" are inserted in the bone to allow your surgeon to assess mobility and stability of the new shoulder joint.

These trial implants come in different sizes to fit just about any body.

Following surgery most patients spend at least one night in the hospital. More surgeons are working to perform joint replacement surgery as an outpatient surgical procedure, but outpatient replacement requires careful coordination and presurgical education to ensure patients are prepared for their return home.


Patients will begin rehabilitation immediately following their surgery, often meeting the therapist on the day of their surgery. Surgeons will generally place their patients in a sling, but allow the sling to be removed to perform specific therapeutic activities.

Most physicians will begin some motion immediately following surgery, but this may not be true in every case. Usually within two to three months, patients are able to return to most normal activities and place an emphasis on strengthening the muscles around the shoulder and maintaining range of motion.


As always, surgery includes risks associated with general anesthesia which tend to be dependent on other medical issues you may have.

Some specific risks of shoulder replacement surgery include:

  • Infection
    Infection around an implanted joint is a very serious complication and therefore there are significant measures taken to avoid this complication. If an infection develops, the entire implanted joint may need to be removed in order to eradicate the infection.
  • Dislocation/Instability
    Because of the ball-and-socket design of the implanted joint, it is important that the surgeon balance the soft tissues around the shoulder to ensure it is not pulled out of position.
  • Loosening of the Implant
    Over time, implanted joints may loosen. Developments are constantly being made to produce longer-lasting implanted joints, but this has not been perfected. If an implant loosens to the point where patients are having significant problems, a revision surgery (a replacement of a joint replacement) may need to be performed.
  • Damage to Nerves or Blood Vessels
    The shoulder is a tight space and many important structures pass just next to the joint. The nerves that send and receive messages to and from your hand and arm, as well as the blood vessels that provide circulation, sit very close to the shoulder joint. One complication of this surgery is damage to a blood vessel or nerve.

Continue Reading