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What is a shoulder dislocation?
Shoulder dislocations happen when the bones in your shoulder joint are pushed or knocked out of their usual places.
A joint is any place in your body where two bones meet. They’re part of your skeletal system. Your shoulder joint is where the round ball at the top of your upper arm bone (humerus) fits into the socket (glenoid) of your shoulder blade (scapula).
A shoulder dislocation is an injury that happens when the ball and socket connection between your bones is separated. It can also damage the tissue around your shoulder joint, including your:
Go to the emergency room if you experience a dislocation or can’t move your shoulder. Never try to force your shoulder back into place on your own.
Types of dislocated shoulders
Healthcare providers classify dislocations depending on how far the bones in your joints were moved:
- Complete dislocations (luxation): A complete dislocation happens when the bones in your joint are totally separated and pushed out of place.
- Subluxation: A subluxation is the medical term for a partial dislocation. You have a subluxation if something pulls your joint apart and the bones still touch, just not as completely as usual.
How common are dislocated shoulders?
Shoulders are the most commonly dislocated joint. But they’re still a relatively rare injury — only around 10 per 100,000 people in the U.S. dislocate a shoulder each year.
Symptoms and Causes
What are dislocated shoulder symptoms?
The most common symptoms of a dislocated shoulder include:
- Extreme pain.
- Inability to move your arm.
- Your shoulder being visibly out of place.
- Bruising or discoloration.
- Muscle spasms.
- Numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm, hand or fingers.
What causes shoulder dislocations?
Any force that’s strong enough to push your shoulder joint out of place can cause a dislocation. The most common causes include:
- Car accidents.
- Sports injuries.
Dislocated shoulder risk factors
Anyone can experience a shoulder dislocation, but some people have a higher risk than others, including:
- Athletes who play contact sports.
- Men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB).
- People between 15 and 30 years old.
- Anyone who has previously dislocated their shoulder.
Men and people AMAB are more than twice as likely to dislocate a shoulder as women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB).
What are the complications of a dislocated shoulder?
The most common complications of shoulder dislocation are damage to the bones and tissues around your shoulder, including:
- Bone fractures.
- Ligament and tendon sprains.
- Nerve damage.
- Damaged blood vessels.
- Muscle strains.
Some people who dislocate a shoulder develop a Hill-Sachs lesion. A Hill-Sachs lesion is like a dent in the ball of your upper humerus. If you dislocate your shoulder and your humerus is pressed against the lip of its socket in your scapula, the ball at the top of it can be damaged.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are dislocated shoulders diagnosed?
A healthcare provider will diagnose a dislocated shoulder with a physical exam. They’ll look at your shoulder and the rest of your arm. Tell your provider about any symptoms you’re experiencing and what you were doing right before you injured your shoulder.
What tests will be done to diagnose a dislocated shoulder?
Your provider might need some of the following imaging tests to diagnose damage inside your body after a dislocation:
Management and Treatment
How are dislocated shoulders treated?
Go to the emergency room right away if you think your shoulder might be dislocated. The most important treatment for a dislocated shoulder is getting your arm back into its socket. This is called a closed reduction or manipulation. During this nonsurgical procedure, your provider will physically push and pull your body on the outside to set (align) your shoulder. They might give you a local anesthetic to numb the area around your shoulder or sedatives to relax your whole body.
Don’t try to push your joint back in place by yourself. Don’t let anyone who’s not a trained, professional healthcare provider move or touch your injured shoulder, either. Try to hold your shoulder as still as possible and don’t force yourself to use it.
If you try to force a dislocated shoulder back in place on your own, you can make your injury worse and damage the tissue around it.
After your provider puts your joint back in place, you might need other treatments, including:
- Immobilization: After your closed reduction, you’ll need to wear a splint or sling to hold your injured shoulder in place. This is called immobilization. This will take stress off it and help it heal. Your provider might recommend icing your injured shoulder a few times a day. You may need to do light exercises so your shoulder doesn’t tighten or freeze. Ask your provider how long you’ll need to wear the splint or sling, and how often you should exercise your shoulder. Most people need to immobilize their shoulders for a few weeks.
- Medication: Your provider will tell you which medication you can take to reduce pain and inflammation. Don’t take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers for more than 10 days in a row without talking to your provider.
- Rest: You’ll need to avoid any physical activity that uses or puts stress on your shoulder. Ask your provider which activities to avoid while you’re recovering.
- Physical therapy: As your shoulder heals, you’ll need to start physical therapy to help it regain its strength and ability to move. At first, you’ll probably only have gentle motion exercises to reduce stiffness. After your shoulder ligaments (your shoulder capsule) have started to heal, you’ll need stretches to loosen your shoulder and make sure it’s not too tight. Eventually, your provider or physical therapist will have you add in exercises to strengthen your shoulder muscles. This will help reduce your risk of future dislocations. Most people need several months of physical therapy after a shoulder dislocation.
Dislocated shoulder surgery
Most people don’t need surgery after dislocating their shoulders. You may need surgery if:
- The injury that dislocated your shoulder caused other damage inside your body.
- A closed reduction doesn’t work or isn’t possible. In this case, you’ll need surgery to reset your shoulder joint.
- You’ve dislocated the same shoulder in the past. You might need surgery to repair or tighten the ligaments that keep your arm attached to your shoulder blade.
What is the recovery time for a dislocated shoulder?
It usually takes a few months to recover after dislocating your shoulder. You’ll need to keep your shoulder immobilized for a few weeks and months of physical therapy after your joint has healed.
Ask your provider how long you need to wait before you resume physical activities. If you return to playing sports or working out before your shoulder has fully healed, you have an increased risk of reinjuring it — including dislocating it again.
Can I prevent a dislocated shoulder?
You can’t always prevent a dislocated shoulder. It usually happens because of unexpected accidents and trauma.
During sports or other physical activities:
- Wear the right protective equipment.
- Don’t “play through the pain” if your shoulder hurts during or after physical activity.
- Give your body time to rest and recover after intense activity.
- Stretch and warm up before playing sports or working out.
- Cool down and stretch after physical activity.
Follow these general safety tips to reduce your risk of an injury:
- Make sure your home and workspace are free from clutter that could trip you or others.
- Always use the proper tools or equipment at home to reach things. Never stand on chairs, tables or countertops.
- Use a cane or walker if you have difficulty walking or have an increased risk of falls.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the outlook for a dislocated shoulder?
Most people make a full recovery after dislocating their shoulder. Even if you need surgery, you should be able to return to most or all your activities and sports after your shoulder has healed.
You’re much more likely to re-injure a shoulder you’ve dislocated before. Some studies have found that more than 90% of athletes younger than 25 who dislocate a shoulder during a contact sport re-injure the same shoulder in the future.
Talk to your provider or surgeon before resuming any physical activities — especially contact sports. They’ll help you understand what to expect and how you can prevent future dislocations.
Will I need to miss work or school while I’m recovering from a dislocated shoulder?
You might need to miss work or school while your shoulder is immobilized if you can’t do your job or schoolwork without moving your injured shoulder. Your provider will tell you which motions or positions to avoid while you’re recovering. Ask your provider when you can return to sports, doing chores or lifting heavy objects.
When should I go to the emergency room?
Go to the emergency room if you’ve experienced trauma.
If you think your shoulder is dislocated:
- Go to an emergency room or call 911 or your local emergency number.
- Don’t move your arm. Keep it close to your body.
- Don’t try to jam your shoulder back into place and don’t let anyone other than a healthcare provider try to. If anyone other than an expert tries to put your shoulder back into place they can damage blood vessels, muscles, ligaments and nerves.
- Apply an ice pack to the injured area to reduce swelling and pain.
- Over-the-counter NSAIDs can help reduce your pain and other symptoms. Don’t take more than the recommended dose.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
- Will I need surgery?
- How long will my arm need to be immobilized?
- When will I start physical therapy?
- When can I resume playing sports or working out?
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a dislocated shoulder fix itself?
A dislocated shoulder won’t heal on its own, and it won’t heal properly unless a healthcare provider diagnoses and treats it.
Go to the emergency room if you have any symptoms of a dislocation after a fall, sports injury or accident.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A dislocated shoulder happens when something forces the ball-shaped head of your upper arm bone out of the socket in your shoulder blade. Falls, sports accidents and other trauma usually cause dislocated shoulders. Shoulders are the most commonly dislocated joint.
Never try to pop your shoulder back in place on your own. Don’t let anyone other than a healthcare provider touch or move it. Go to the emergency room right away if you think your shoulder is dislocated or you can’t move or use your arm.
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