How I Avoided Surgery and a Yearlong Recovery for My Shoulder Injury

flying trapeze, shoulder, pain, shoulder pain

Let me start by introducing myself.  I am far from an elite athlete, but I’d also say I’m not your typical 37 year old mom, either.  I am an avid Obstacle Course Runner and cofounder of one of the largest teams of female Obstacle Course Runners in Canada.  I make it a point to incorporate movement into my life:

  • Every week, I practice gymnastics for cross-training
  • For the past year, I have studied aerial silks (2-3 times per week)
  • I drive from Ottawa to Montreal 1-2 times a month to study flying trapeze.

I’m not particularly advanced in any of these endeavors but I am blessed to have found things that truly bring me to life.

But as you may know, things don’t always go as planned…


How it happened

In April, I began experiencing pain – mostly aching – in my right shoulder. On May 1st, after a long day of flying trapeze followed by my usual silks training, I knew something was wrong.

Things got progressively worse from there.

On May 6th, I visited my sports doctor and was unable to lift my right arm above 20 degrees – and that was only with a severely hiked shoulder.  He suspected I had a torn supraspinatus (later confirmed as a full thickness tear by MRI and ultrasound). I would not be able to do ANY of the things I love for at least 12 months.

My memory gets blurry after that part.  He kept talking, but I didn’t hear anything over my crying. “Lots of ice… full rest… no more trapeze… possible surgery.” My husband had to come get me and drive me home.

I was inconsolable.

I went from climbing 30’ high muddy ropes, flying across monkey bars and actually swinging from the ceilings to needing my husband to wash my hair for me.  It felt as though someone had stripped me of my very identity.

These things were not just my hobbies, they were what brought me joy.

I was lost.


A new plan

I cancelled that weekend’s trapeze plans and instead sat with White-Out literally clearing my calendar and wallowing – for about a day.  Then I set to work.

I grabbed a notebook and began documenting EVERYTHING.  Every twinge, pain or pinch. Every stretch, lift or movement. Every ice pack applied and every pill taken.

I could do nothing or I could do everything in my power.  I chose the latter.



I was so lucky to already be in the care of who could only be described as “the World’s Greatest Physio” (WGP) and I was eager to get her take on things.  Gen and I spoke very honestly about my concerns and quickly learned that we were both on the same page.

I would not be content being “able to put dishes on the top shelf again.” I needed to get back on that trapeze and I needed to do it without surgery!

As I was unable to move it myself, we started with my physio passively moving my arm to prevent frozen shoulder. Within a week, I was working on my range of motion at home, carefully watching in a mirror to be sure my “bad” side looked like my “good” side.

The following week saw us adding some further mobility exercises and making great progress.  I had all the free time in the world (unfortunately) so why not put it to good use?  Not going to Silks today?  Might as well do physio.  Oh, not doing gymnastics tonight? Might as well do physio. Had to cancel another trapeze class this weekend?  You guessed it… PHYSIO!


Start small –just keep moving

I remember the first time Gen said to me “Let’s go into the gym!”  I had been eyeing this area of the clinic from the first day I had walked in. Huge space, every piece of equipment under the sun, and a “rig” of pullup bars, squat racks and monkey bars that would make any Cross fitter’s knees weak!

We started very small with stabilizing exercises like lateral raises and walking while holding a weight overhead. The “walking with weights” exercise required my muscles to fire to maintain the weight’s position as it tried to waiver. My instructions were to perform the movements in front of a mirror, and to stop immediately if I felt pain.

Week after week, my range of motion and strength improved.  Gen continued to add new and more challenging exercises like overhead presses, scapular pullups and chin-ups.  I continued to do the work when I could and to rest when I needed.


The surprise

The day came for my six week follow up with my sports doctor.

So much had changed since he last saw me.

I shared with him the 10 pages of detailed logs I’d kept since my injury. He did the same tests as the previous visit and was THRILLED with the progress. He said my hard work was very clearly paying off.

He called me “the poster child for non-surgical rehabilitation”.

I asked if I could begin to return to activity, as I had gone from about five days a week of strenuous upper body activity to virtually NONE for six weeks.

He said that my physio knew me and my progress better than anyone and that if she was ok with it, then he was, too. He specified that I should not return to my five days a week of strenuous exercise, but to slowly reintroduce myself to activities and continue to modify/train accordingly to make sure I am not risking further injury.

Eight weeks after my injury on June 27th, I returned to trapeze without any pain.



I continue to see my physio Gen every few weeks for maintenance. She has me doing lots of stabilizing and strengthening work to ensure that I use proper form during exercise and that I’m feeling stronger than ever.

Physiotherapy helped me reduce a 52 week prognosis to 8 weeks.   I call that a win!!!!!!!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to figure out how the heck to do Turkish get-ups! 😉


About Kelly

Kelly Ripley (@kellyripley1) is an obstacle racer, runner, aerialist who dreams of running away to join the circus. She is a founder of the 1000 member Canadian Mudd Queens (@CMQ_TheEhTeam) obstacle racing team and enjoys finding ways to “exercise by accident” through fun and exciting adventures with friends.

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