After years of shoulder pain, former high school athlete is a ‘new person’ thanks to innovative procedure

Tom Kavanaugh

Up until last year, Tom Kavanaugh, 35, started each day with a familiar routine. During a typical night of interrupted sleep, he would wake up and take two extra strength Tylenol to numb the pain in his right shoulder. A few hours later he’d take two more. And a few hours later he’d need more. He had taken so much acetaminophen over the past five years, his liver was suffering from side effects.

By the time Kavanaugh made an appointment with University of Chicago Medicine orthopaedic surgeon Megan Conti Mica, MD, he was convinced that he’d never be free of constant pain. But a procedure performed by Conti Mica in early 2017 called a biceps tenodesis — moving the biceps tendon — changed his life.

“It’s something that no one else even suggested,” Kavanaugh said. “It was like turning on a light switch — the surgery solved everything.”

A former high school football player and wrestler, Kavanaugh’s saga began when he tore his rotator cuff at age 17 and underwent his first shoulder surgery. He kept competing — and dislocating the shoulder — causing more damage. He had another surgery and a month later was in a car accident, which ruined the repair that had just been done. He had a third surgery his freshman year in college and felt pretty good until 2004, when his shoulder started to ache constantly again.

It was like turning on a light switch — the surgery solved everything.

Kavanaugh, who works in financial sales in Chicago, consulted other doctors in search of relief. He stayed fairly active lifting weights and even practiced jiu-jitsu for a while, but he needed prescription medications to manage the pain and after awhile, doctors cut him off from those.

“Every orthopedist I visited said the same thing: ‘You’ve had three shoulder surgeries, so at this point you’re out of luck.’ I thought I’d be in pain the rest of my life.”

Kavanaugh moved to Chicago, and his family physician referred him to Conti Mica. He was told that she looks at difficult cases other physicians won’t take. “I was skeptical at first, but she told me she thought she could help.”

A hand and upper extremity surgical specialist, Conti Mica suggested the biceps tenodesis procedure, which essentially rerouted his biceps tendon and relieved the shoulder pain. Conti Mica, who has done extensive research on opioids and pain medication, was also sensitive to Kavanaugh’s liver problems caused by his reliance on over-the-counter pain relievers. She educated Kavanaugh before the surgery so he could effectively control the pain he experienced with a minimum amount of prescription medication.

In a few weeks, the shoulder pain that had plagued him for more than a decade was gone, and Kavanaugh was back to work and playing with his two dogs. Within two months, he started weightlifting again.

“I’m a new person,” Kavanaugh said. “I owe her such a debt of gratitude for making my life better at this point."

Megan Conti Mica, MD

Megan Conti Mica, MD

Megan Conti Mica, MD, is a skilled hand and upper extremity surgeon. She specializes in the treatment of adults and children, including athletes at all levels, with injuries or disorders of the hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder.

Learn more about Dr. Conti Mica

Shoulder and Elbow Care

The shoulder and elbow specialists at University of Chicago Medicine offer the complete range of non-surgical, minimally invasive (arthroscopic) and open surgery for teens, young adults and older adults.

Read about our shoulder care