When Patricia Plonchak tripped and fell on a concrete edge at her water aerobics pool, she was mostly just embarrassed. But within two weeks, her right arm that helped break the fall wasn’t functioning like normal.

“I realized I couldn't raise my arm above my head and couldn't reach behind me,” she said.

As an avid golfer, she suddenly couldn’t do one of the things she enjoys most.

Dr. Benjamin Browning wears a white coat and smiles.
Dr. Benjamin Browning

Plonchak’s primary care doctor referred her to Dr. Benjamin Browning at Novant Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine - Brunswick. An MRI revealed she had an acute tear in her rotator cuff, the group of tendons and muscles surrounding the shoulder joint, on her right side. So much for golfing.

But Browning had a solution – a minimally invasive surgical procedure that could allow Plonchak to regain her swing. After surgery, Plonchak surprised even her physical therapist with her quick recovery time, getting back to the golf course within just a few short months, and back to the coastal outdoor lifestyle she loves.

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Finding the fix

Plonchak, 69, relocated to Brunswick County from New York in 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic began. She and her husband were drawn to the North Carolina coast’s warm weather and plentiful opportunities for outdoor recreation. She hadn’t counted on a serious shoulder injury just two years later, in July 2022.

Browning, who specializes in arthroscopic knee and shoulder surgery and repairs many rotator cuff tears, reassured her he could quickly get her on the road to recovery with an outpatient procedure to reattach her torn rotator cuff.

Browning said the nature of Plonchak’s injury is common for acute tears, where people “fall and land in an awkward position,” with sports like pickleball being a frequent cause. Every year, more than 2 million Americans visit their doctor because of a rotator cuff tear, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports. The injury can complicate everyday tasks like getting dressed, brushing your hair or reaching to the top shelf of the refrigerator.

In cases where a rotator cuff tear is due to an acute injury, as opposed to prolonged wear and tear, Browning encourages patients not to put off being evaluated by a shoulder specialist. He said research has shown that surgery has better outcomes when performed sooner for acute tears, ideally within six months of injury. For the tears that are more degenerative and don’t involve an injury, initial nonsurgical treatment, like physical therapy, plays a bigger role.

Open surgery versus minimally invasive surgery: what’s the difference?

Open surgery is what we think of as “traditional” surgery, wherein the surgeon makes one large incision. Minimally invasive surgery is a newer technique that involves making three to six small incisions, each about a half-inch long. There are many benefits to minimally invasive surgery, including less loss of blood and chance of infection, smaller scars, and less damage to tissue, which allow for faster recovery time.

On the road to recovery

To fix Plonchak’s shoulder, Browning would use a minimally invasive technique called arthroscopic surgery, one that he uses frequently for both knee and shoulder injuries. The technique allows him to view the rotator cuff and the shoulder joint while performing the surgery with small, thin instruments, through incisions less than an inch in size. The scope transmits a video image to a large screen for a close-up view of the injury. This method of minimally invasive surgery, sometimes called keyhole surgery because the incisions are so tiny, requires less soft tissue dissection than larger open repairs and may help speed up recovery. Knowing the surgery would be arthroscopic and outpatient helped ease Plonchak’s mind, she said. She scheduled her surgery for January 2023.

Plonchak’s surgery went off without a hitch; ahead of her was the recovery. Browning told her it could be six to nine months before she would be back to her golf game, but Plonchak was determined to get there as quickly as possible.

“I said, ‘OK, by April, I'm going to be playing. That was my goal,” she said.

She attended physical therapy two to three days a week, and followed her therapist’s instructions for continued exercises at home each day. She also credits a return to water aerobics, which she faithfully attended prior to her injury, for her recovery. (She was careful to keep her right shoulder protected in a sling for six weeks, and she received the OK from Browning to return to the pool.)

By adhering to the right combination for physical therapy and rest, she exceeded expectations for her recovery time, meeting her three-month goal.

“Dr. Browning was terrific and did a great job. And his staff is wonderful,” she said.

Maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle

Browning encourages anyone who has experienced an acute injury, like Plonchak, to see an orthopedist as quickly as possible. But you don’t have to have an accident or a fall to benefit from orthopedic care.

“Orthopedic care is important to maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle,” he said.

As we age, everyday wear and tear on the joints and musculoskeletal system can cause us to change, or even opt out of the activities we enjoy. Nonoperative orthopedic care, including physical therapy or a simple injection, can help ensure we may continue the activities we enjoy and stay active.

Plonchak said this is a valuable lesson she has learned, and that she and her husband both will continue to visit Browning to ensure they can continue the outdoor activities that they love, pain-free.