Why Shoulder Surgery is Much Worse than Open Heart Surgery

DJ Forsyth- Athlete daily

[DJ Forsyth competed at the 2012 and 2013 CrossFit South Central Regionals. The 43-year-old is the owner of CrossFit PRx in The Woodlands, TX. ]

Shoulder surgery is so much worse than open-heart surgery. I’m not kidding. I know you think that sounds crazy, but it’s true.

I was diagnosed with aortic stenosis, which is a narrowing of the aortic valve in my heart, when I was in my early 20s. The doctors told me there was no way to fix it other than surgery, and we watched it like a ticking time-bomb for nearly 14 years. I started doing CrossFit in 2011 to stay in shape and make my heart more healthy in general, and I found out pretty quickly I was pretty good at it.

I made the regionals in 2012 and 2013, and I never felt one symptom of my bad heart. I never was tired. I never had shortness of breath. Nothing. But, in December of 2013, my doctors told me it was time to replace my aortic valve with a mechanical one. I worked out like crazy right up until the day before my surgery.

I figured I may never work out again, so why not?

The days leading up to my heart surgery were a nightmare, because you know that in the worst-case scenario, you die. But everything after the surgery was super easy. When you wake up from your heart surgery, you’re pretty much done. It was two weeks of taking it easy.

I was back in the gym at week three and within six weeks, I was doing touch-and-go power cleans at 135 pounds and pullups and muscle ups. I wasn’t 100 percent back, but I was back to where I could at least do all the movements.

DJ Forsyth- Athlete daily

I’m at five weeks with my shoulder and I still can barely even put my clothes on by myself. Shaving is really hard, and I haven’t worn shoes that tie in months because I can’t get my hands down there to tie the laces. That’s what I mean. When I tell the other people who have had heart surgery this is worse, they’re like, “No way.” And I’m like, “Definitely.”

I have a zipper scar from my open-heart surgery that is about a foot long. It goes from about six inches above my belly button to just under my collar.

They literally sawed me open, and the pain was nothing compared to what I felt with shoulder surgery. It’s incredible.

My first shoulder surgery was in November of 2015. I had been at the Granite Games in Minnesota and I felt a pop in my right shoulder while I was doing a muscle up. I felt it, I heard it, and it hurt like a mother, so I knew something was wrong. I immediately couldn’t raise my arm above my head. Something was up. I found out I had fully torn my rotator cuff and also had a tear in my biceps tendon.

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Before that surgery, I wasn’t nervous in the least. I was just excited to have my shoulder fixed and have the pain go away. Then, I woke up and it hurt so much. I can’t even describe the pain. It hurt so badly, I thought the doctor had messed up.

After the numbing medicine wore off, I was shocked. The doctor said, “Everything’s fine, quit being a weenie.” I felt like I was pretty tough before that, but I guess not.

The first and second night after the surgery, I just laid there and moaned like I’d been shot in the leg and dragged out of a combat war zone. The people around me didn’t even know how to react.

This second time, I was in Miami at Wodapalooza, and my left shoulder was hurting, but I could still use it. I went to the medic tent to get it looked at and they told me I had probably torn my rotator cuff. And I thought, no, I’ve done that, this isn’t that bad. And sure enough, they were right.

DJ Forsyth- Athlete daily

They literally sawed me open, and the pain was nothing compared to what I felt with shoulder surgery. It’s incredible.

This time, I was super nervous before the surgery because I knew when I woke up, the pain was just going to be ridiculous. I can’t sleep, because I’m a stomach sleeper and I’m not allowed to do pushups, so I can’t lay on my stomach because I can’t push myself up. So I’ve been sleeping on the couch, kind of wedged in the corner.

I go to physical therapy three days a week. They stick their fingers into my shoulder to break up the scar tissue, but there’s not much I can do from an exercise standpoint yet beyond rolling a ball on a table or doing pendulum swings with my arm. After my heart surgery, I didn’t do any physical therapy at all. I didn’t even think about it and it wasn’t recommended.

DJ Forsyth- Athlete daily

I still can’t run because it’s too jarring. My son is playing baseball right now, and I can’t throw with him, even though I’m right-handed and this is my left shoulder.

The biggest thing you’re trying to stay away from is any kind of jerk, like if you’re about to fall, or if you reach for something really quickly. I’ve dropped my phone and reached for it with the bad arm a few times and it feels like getting shot in the back.

My first shoulder is fine now. I have zero issues with it whatsoever, but I don’t remember how long it took to get there.

Right now, I can’t even press the PVC pipe above my head. I can get my hand almost up there. But, I guess the cool thing with my shoulder is you can always tell it’s getting better because you can go a little bit further.

One day, I can almost wash my whole head, where a few days earlier, I could only wash my chin. My hand is migrating up, and that’s progress.

I’ve been doing only air squats and riding the bike with no arms to get my legs some exercise. I just got cleared to do some front raises with 10 pounds and some light shrugs.

To add any weight at all is cool, but I can’t wait to start moving some real weight. I haven’t lost any weight like I did after my heart surgery, but I definitely don’t look like I normally do. I hope to maybe be able to snatch 65 or 75 pounds around the two-month mark.

And then I think about where I am now. It’s like I said. Shoulder surgery is so much worse than heart surgery.