Rider Gets Back in the Saddle After Shoulder Replacements

Judy Owens on her horse

Since she was a girl growing up in Maine, Judy Owens has loved horses.

“My sister and I used to con my folks into taking us to the rent-them-by-the-hour place so we could ride,” she said.

Owens is now in her 80s and has lived in Missouri for the last six decades, but she hasn’t lost her New England accent or her love of horses. She owns three — Rocky, Fizz and Sherman — and rides them four or five times a week.

“Riding is fun, especially if you pop a couple of jumps in,” she said.

Owens participates in the equestrian sport of dressage, in which riders are judged on their horse’s ability to perform a specific series of movements. Training a horse to move precisely requires a lot of saddle time. Unfortunately for Owens, as she approached her 80th birthday, her stiff right shoulder was making that difficult.

“I couldn’t get the saddle on,” Owens said. “I couldn’t lift it high enough.”

Matthew Smith, MD
Matthew Smith, MD

Owens made an appointment with Matthew Smith, MD, a shoulder and elbow surgeon at MU Health Care’s Missouri Orthopaedic Institute. A physical exam and X-rays showed that Owens had osteoarthritis — the cartilage that cushioned her shoulder joint had worn down.

“As the smooth surface goes away because of arthritis, there’s more friction between the two bones that are rubbing,” Smith said. “Sometimes the joint gets a little deformity to it. People lose rotational movement, particularly trying to reach behind or reach to the other shoulder.”

Smith said when shoulder pain or stiffness starts affecting daily life, it’s time to see a shoulder specialist. For patients such as Owens who don’t find relief from medication, injections or physical therapy, shoulder replacement surgery can be a good option.

“If you look around the country, a higher-volume shoulder surgeon will do 50-75 shoulder replacements a year. I do about 250 a year,” Smith said. “I’ve been here 14 years doing really high volume, and our whole team is really experienced.”

The surgery involves replacing the humeral head — the ball attached to the top of upper arm bone — with a metal ball and resurfacing the shoulder socket with a plastic lining before putting the joint back together. The procedure takes about 90 minutes, and most patients can return home after a one-night stay in the hospital.

In March 2020, Owens had surgery.

“When I woke up, my arm was numb from the nerve block, but when the nerve block wore off, my arm still didn’t hurt,” Owens said. “I needed to take no drugs at all for pain after surgery.”

Owens followed the standard recovery plan, which required wearing a sling for a few days and not using her repaired arm to lift anything heavier than a phone or water bottle for six weeks. After that, she was able to start riding again, and she took advantage of physical therapy with Mizzou Therapy Services to further rebuild her strength.

“Usually within three months patients are pretty active, reaching and doing relatively simple tasks,” Smith said. “They continue to get stronger, and their range of motion improves quite a bit through the first six to nine months.”

Six months after surgery, her left shoulder started to bother her. She mentioned it to Smith, and sure enough, he found osteoarthritis was taking a toll on that joint as well. So, in April 2021, she went back to Smith and had her left shoulder replaced.

“The Missouri Orthopaedic Institute is a great hospital, by the way. It’s my hospital of choice,” said Owens, who speaks from experience, as she also has had both knees and hips replaced. “Even the food is great. People say hospital food is terrible, but MOI has great food. And Dr. Smith is wonderful. He’s a nice guy and a good, good surgeon.”

By the fall of 2021, she was back to leading an active life without limitations. She can push a wheelbarrow, carry water buckets, clean stalls and — most important — saddle up and ride Rocky, Fizz and Sherman.

“Being able to get back in the saddle was big. Being able to reach over to wash my armpit was good, too,” she joked.

Her advice for anyone suffering from shoulder pain or stiffness is simple.

“You should look into it if you can’t do what you want to do,” Owens said. “Anybody who says their shoulder is bothering them, I say, ‘Go see Dr. Smith.’”

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