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Shoulder Decompression

Also known as… often, shoulder decompression is also referred to as subacromial decompression which is a treatment used to help with a condition called shoulder impingement.

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Everything you need to know

If you’re suffering from long-term shoulder pain, it might be shoulder impingement syndrome.

Common symptoms associated with this condition are:

  • pain in the top and outer side of your shoulder
  • pain that feels worse when you lift your arm over your head
  • pain or aching along the shoulder blade at night – impacting your sleep (this is especially prevalent for those who are side sleepers)
  • weakness in your arm and shoulder muscles

When considering shoulder decompression, it’s important to remember that while many patients receive successful results from this operation, every surgical procedure can carry potential risks. However, rest assured that the surgeon will discuss all available treatment options, to make sure that all non-operative alternatives have been exhausted. Most conditions can be treated non-operatively, but as a last resort, you might be recommended for surgery.


To begin the discussion about a shoulder decompression procedure, you’ll first need to book an appointment with one of our upper limb consultants. Your surgeon will walk you through the process step-by-step.

During that first appointment, they will need to run some tests on you to ensure your symptoms line up with that of shoulder impingement. If, together with your surgeon, you agree that a subacromial decompression is the best course of action, they will advise you on how to best prepare for the procedure.

Before your surgery, you will need to come into hospital for a pre-assessment, where we can check your fitness for surgery. This is a standard check and includes a physical exam, blood tests, heart, and lung function tests.

If you take any blood thinners—for example, warfarin or aspirin, tell your doctor straight away, as you may need to stop taking these or modify your intake from a week before surgery. Your doctor will give you specific instructions if this is the case. You should also tell your doctor if you take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.


The shoulder decompression will begin with putting you under the general anaesthetic. This will help ensure that you don’t feel pain during the procedure.

As much of your shoulder pain is likely down to damage to the rotator cuff tendons or inflammation to the shoulder blade, the surgeon must focus on making more space under your acromion (shoulder blade) so that it doesn’t press against your tendons.

Shoulder decompression surgery is often carried out through a keyhole procedure, which means that the surgeon will use a small incision to explore the extent of the shoulder impingement. They may need to repair any damage caused to the tendons or cut away any muscle around the rotator cuff tendon. In some instances, to relieve shoulder pain caused to the damaged tendons, the team will use their specially designed surgical instruments and turn the keyhole surgery into an open operation.

If this is done, you may be left with a larger subacromial decompression scar than if you only had a keyhole procedure.


Once the subacromial decompression procedure is all finished, you’ll be taken to a separate ward to fully recover from the surgery.

It should take about one hour for the anaesthetic to wear off. You should then be able to make your way home to continue with the recovery process. As you won’t be able to drive, make sure you’ve arranged for someone to assist you.

After shoulder decompression surgery, it’s likely that you’ll have some difficulty with normal activities for a little while. It’s important that you take recovery time seriously. Following the surgery, physical therapy and rehabilitation are essential for a successful recovery. You’ll have your arm in a sling for around two weeks after the operation and an upper limb physiotherapist will work with you to gradually regain shoulder strength and range of motion. The rehabilitation process can take from three to six months, and it’s crucial to follow the therapist’s guidance and any postoperative instructions provided by your surgeon.

Medically reviewed by Mr Abbas Rashid - BSc(Hons) MBBS FRCS(Tr&Orth) on 02/02/2024

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How to pay for your treatment

If you’re… paying for yourself

Did you know you don’t need private medical insurance to come to St John & St Elizabeth Hospital? As a self-pay patient, you can access safe, outstanding quality health care at times to suit you.

For scans and tests, as well as to see most consultants, you’ll still need to be referred by a medical professional like your GP, but as a self-pay patient, the process is more straightforward. You won’t need authorisation from an insurance provider, and you’ll have greater choice of consultant and appointment times.

If you’re… insured

St John & St Elizabeth Hospital is approved by all major medical insurance companies. If you have a personal private health insurance policy, or your company provide it for you, you can use it to pay for your care from your initial consultation through to treatment, surgery and aftercare such as physiotherapy. Not all private health insurance plans cover the same things. It’s very important to check exactly what you are covered for with your insurance provider.