Do Relaxation Exercises Decrease Pain After Arthroscopic Rotator Cuff Repair? A Randomized Controlled Trial

Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2021 May 1;479(5):870-884. doi: 10.1097/CORR.0000000000001723.


Background: Pain after rotator cuff repair is commonly managed with opioid medications; however, these medications are associated with serious adverse effects. Relaxation exercises represent a potential nonpharmacologic method of pain management that can be easily implemented without substantial adverse effects; however, the effects of relaxation exercises have not been studied in a practical, reproducible protocol after arthroscopic rotator cuff repair.

Questions/purposes: (1) Does performing relaxation exercises after arthroscopic rotator cuff repair (ARCR) decrease pain compared with standard pain management medication? (2) Does performing relaxation exercises after ARCR decrease opioid consumption? (3) What proportion of patients who used the relaxation techniques believed they decreased their pain level, and what proportion continued using these techniques at 2 weeks? (4) Does performing relaxation exercises after ARCR affect shoulder function?

Methods: During the study period, 563 patients were eligible for inclusion; however, only 146 were enrolled, randomized, and postoperatively followed (relaxation group: 74, control group: 72); 68% (384 of 563) of patients were not contacted due to patient and research staff availability. Thirty-three patients were unenrolled preoperatively or immediately postoperatively due to change in operative procedure (such as, only debridement) or patient request; no postoperative data were collected from these patients. Follow-up proportions were similar between the relaxation and control groups (relaxation: 80%, control: 81%; p = 0.90). The relaxation group received and reviewed educational materials consisting of a 5-minute video and an educational pamphlet explaining relaxation breathing techniques, while the control group did not receive relaxation education materials. Patients recorded their pain levels and opioid consumption during the 5 days after ARCR. Patients also completed the American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons shoulder score preoperatively and 2, 6, 13, 18, and 26 weeks postoperatively. Linear mixed models were created to analyze postoperative pain, opioid consumption measured in morphine milligram equivalents (MMEs), and shoulder function outcomes. A per-protocol approach was used to correct for patients who were enrolled but subsequently underwent other procedures.

Results: There was no difference in pain scores between the relaxation and control groups during the first 5 days postoperatively. There was no difference in pain scores at 2 weeks postoperatively between the relaxation and control groups (3.3 ± 3 versus 3.5 ± 2, mean difference -0.22 [95% CI -1.06 to 0.62]; p = 0.60). There was no difference in opioid consumption during the first 5 days postoperatively between the relaxation and control groups. The use of relaxation exercises resulted in lower 2-week narcotics consumption in the relaxation group than in the control group (309 ± 241 MMEs versus 442 ± 307 MMEs, mean difference -133 [95% CI -225 to -42]; p < 0.01). Sixty-two percent (41 of 66) of patients in the relaxation group believed the relaxation exercises decreased their pain levels. Fifty-two percent (34 of 66) were still performing the exercises at 2 weeks postoperatively. During the 6-month follow-up period, there was no difference in shoulder function between the relaxation and control groups.

Conclusion: The preoperative administration of quick, basic relaxation exercises allowed patients to use appreciably lower opioid analgesic doses over the first 2 weeks after ARCR, without any worsening of pain scores. We consider this result promising but preliminary; it is possible that a more intense mindfulness intervention-the one we studied here was disseminated using only a 5-minute video-would deliver reductions in pain and further reductions in opioid usage.

Level of evidence: Level II, therapeutic study.

Trial registration: NCT04249089.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Arthroscopy / adverse effects
  • Arthroscopy / rehabilitation*
  • Breathing Exercises*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mindfulness
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pain, Postoperative / diagnosis
  • Pain, Postoperative / etiology
  • Pain, Postoperative / physiopathology
  • Pain, Postoperative / prevention & control*
  • Philadelphia
  • Relaxation Therapy* / adverse effects
  • Rotator Cuff / diagnostic imaging
  • Rotator Cuff / physiopathology
  • Rotator Cuff / surgery*
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries / diagnostic imaging
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries / physiopathology
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries / surgery*
  • Time Factors
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Analgesics, Opioid

Associated data