Rotator cuff surgery ends Chris’s shoulder pain so he can enjoy being a grandfather

When the pain in Chris Kaffenberger’s shoulder got so bad that he had to ask his coworkers to carry boxes for him, he knew he had waited too long to get the surgery he needed.

“My pain had become excruciating,” says Chris, 66, of Clinton, Iowa. “I should have had the procedure long before it got that bad, but I didn’t listen to the doctor.”

His doctor, University of Iowa Sports Medicine orthopedic surgeon Brian Wolf, MD, had diagnosed Chris with a torn rotator cuff that needed to be repaired.

Chris was concerned that surgery would keep him away from work too long. But after putting it off for almost a year, the pain began to disrupt his home life and his work life in ways he could no longer ignore. He made an appointment to get the procedure done.

Chris Kaffenberger sitting in his truckbed
With his shoulder pain gone, Chris is back to enjoying time with his grandchildren.

In November 2019, Wolf performed minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery to repair the tear in Chris’s rotator cuff. Today, Chris has full range of motion in his shoulder and has returned to living life on his own terms.

Stabbing shoulder pain only got worse

With six children and seven grandchildren, Chris and his wife Dawn live a full, active life. Chris loves building furniture, remodeling houses, and creating wooden toys with his grandchildren.

When he noticed discomfort in his shoulder that wouldn’t go away, Chris consulted with his primary care doctor.

“I had tried icing and cortisone shots, but they didn’t work,” Chris says. “My doctor referred me to UI Sports Medicine. Dr. Wolf said I needed rotator cuff repair.”

Chris decided to wait and see if he could get along without surgery. At first, he says, the pain was just a nuisance. Gradually, it got worse and started to steal away the things he loved to do.

“It felt like I was getting stabbed if I moved my arm a certain way, even when I wasn’t holding anything in my hand,” Chris says.

That stabbing shoulder pain interfered with family life and life at work, where Chris often has to lift 50-pound boxes. More and more, he had to ask others for help. That motivated him to take Wolf’s advice and have the surgery.

Using the latest techniques to reduce pain and recovery time

The rotator cuff is the group of muscles and tendons that cover the top of the upper arm bone and keep the arm connected to the shoulder socket. A tear in the rotator cuff causes pain and weakness in the arm that usually gets worse over time.

Rotator cuff tears can happen with an acute injury, such as a sports injury or while breaking a fall. But for some people, like Chris, the tear happens over time with everyday wear and tear from normal activity.

Symptoms include pain at night when trying to sleep, pain and weakness when lifting the arm out in front of the body, and clicking or popping sounds when moving the shoulder.

Wolf says that many people with a torn rotator cuff delay surgery like Chris did. But after they’ve had the surgery and they get back to living a normal life, most wish they hadn’t waited.

“Rotator cuff surgery gets a bad rap because it takes five to six months to recover completely and do everything you want to do,” Wolf says. “But we’re able to relieve the pain for most patients and even increase function and strength in their shoulder.”

And because UI Sports Medicine surgeons treat the full range of patients—including high-performing college and Olympic athletes—they always use the latest proven techniques, like the arthroscopic surgery Wolf used to repair Chris’s shoulder.

“Instead of making one large incision, we make four or five tiny incisions around the shoulder that are less than one centimeter in size,” Wolf says. “We use a very tiny camera called an arthroscope to see inside the joint and make the repairs. It’s much easier on patients than it was 15 or 20 years ago.”

Wolf says there’s less pain immediately after surgery, and the recovery time is shorter.

Back to a normal life, quickly

For Chris, the procedure took about two hours, and he returned home that same day. He says relief from the pain came immediately.

“I didn’t feel a twinge of pain at all,” Chris says. “It was amazing.”

After the procedure, his road back to having a healthy shoulder was smoother than he had expected.

“I followed doctor’s orders, took pain medicine for two days, and iced my shoulder with a special machine,” he says.

Physical therapy helped him increase the shoulder’s strength and mobility.

Even before his recovery was complete, he was back to doing the things he loves to do, including building two large train sets–complete with detailed farms and cities for the trains to run through—for his grandchildren.

“Don’t put it off,” Chris says. “Get it done. You’ll get it over with and be happy with the results.”

Clinton, Iowa