The Injury: Torn rotator cuff
Expected Recovery Time: 9 months
What is the role of the rotator cuff?
The rotator cuff is a group of four shoulder muscles that act to stabilize the head (ball) of the humerus (arm bone) in the glenoid fossa (socket). When one of the four rotator cuff muscles tears, the shoulder loses the ability to effectively hold the head of the humerus in the socket during shoulder movement. An incomplete rotator cuff allows the ball to move around too much in the socket, which can cause pain and further injury to the shoulder.
Kobe has dunked so many times in his NBA career without getting hurt. Why did his rotator cuff tear this time?
First, let’s clear the air a little bit here. If I could definitively answer this question I would probably be working with Kobe on his rehab instead of writing articles about him. With that said, I’ll review a plausible reason for why Kobe’s rotator cuff might have torn.
It’s very possible that this dunk was simply the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Often times, rotator cuff tears are the result of prolonged degeneration of one of the tendons of the rotator cuff. When someone is constantly using their arm in an overhead position, such as shooting a basketball, the rotator cuff is forced to work hard to hold the head of the humerus (ball) in the socket. If the rotator cuff isn’t working properly when shooting or dunking a basketball, one of the tendons can become pinched in between two bones. When the tendon gets pinched over and over, it begins to wear down and may eventually tear.
Why is Kobe’s recovery going to take 9 months?
It is actually possible that Kobe will be back sooner than his 9-month projection, but the typical rehab process for rotator cuff surgery lasts about 9 months. In order to provide a general overview of what Kobe will be going through during rehab, I will breakdown a rotator cuff rehab protocol from Massachusetts General Hospital.
For the first six weeks following surgery, Kobe will not be allowed to actively use his shoulder for anything. Actively using the shoulder places stress on the newly repaired rotator cuff, which could result in re-tearing the tendon. During physical therapy, Kobe’s therapist will stretch his arm for him in order to regain shoulder motion lost after surgery.
Once the tendon is considered to be medically stable around 6 weeks post-surgery, Kobe can begin GENTLY strengthening the shoulder. The strengthening process begins so slowly that even a 6”6, 212 pound professional athlete is going to begin with performing isometric exercises. Isometric exercises are exercises in which the length of the muscle remains constant during the muscle contraction (meaning no movement is occurring while the muscles are active). A common example of an isometric exercise is a plank. The purpose of these exercises for the rotator cuff is to provide an initial, low stress, method of regaining strength. Over the course of weeks (6-12 weeks post-surgery), strengthening gradually increases to the point that Kobe can actively move his arm through part or all of a shooting motion.
By about week 12 after surgery, the real fun begins. At this point Kobe should have complete active shoulder motion. Additionally, because he has regained a little bit of baseline rotator cuff strength, he can start increasing the resistance of his exercises to no more than…..wait for it……wait longer……..THREE POUNDS! If you aren’t as excited about that as I am, well, that’s probably normal. The exercises during this stage might not be flashy, but they allow the athlete to gradually strengthen the rotator cuff while the arm is in the overhead position (very important for shooting a basketball). Although Kobe (probably) won’t be allowed to shoot with a basketball just yet, he can now go out to his drive way and hit as many imaginary buzzer beaters threes as he wants.
During the final stage of recovery, beginning around week 18 after surgery, Kobe’s strengthening program will really ramp up. The focus of the rehab now shifts from doing low level strengthening exercises, to higher-level strengthening and sports specific exercises. Some examples of exercises that Kobe might perform during this stage include a variety of push up variations, medicine ball chest passes, and one-handed medicine ball throws. An athlete’s progression during this stage of the rehab is extremely variable, and it is not impossible for Kobe to pull an Adrian Peterson and recover quicker than everyone thought.
Will Kobe return 100% next year?
Assuming that the surgery is successful, and that Kobe has no complications with his rehab, I expect him to be back to 100% next year. Once the rotator cuff is repaired and strengthened, there is no reason that would prevent Kobe from regaining his shooting form, playing defense, or driving strong to the basket. Even though Kobe is a bit older for a professional athlete, he is actually relatively young for a person getting rotator cuff surgery. Additionally, Kobe has access to an elite training staff 7 days a week that will be doing everything they can to ensure he is ready to go next year.
Written by David Schwartz