Dislocation

Overview

What is a dislocation?

The place where two or more bones in the body come together is called a joint. A dislocation occurs when the bones in a joint become separated or knocked out of their usual positions. Any joint in the body can become dislocated. If the joint is partially dislocated, it is called a subluxation.

Dislocations can be very painful and cause the affected joint area to be unsteady or immobile (unable to move). They can also strain or tear the surrounding muscles, nerves, and tendons (tissue that connects the bones at a joint). You should seek medical treatment for a dislocation.

How common is a dislocation?

Dislocations are very common. They can happen to any joint in the body, but they most often affect these joints:

Symptoms and Causes

What causes a dislocation?

Trauma that forces a joint out of place causes a dislocation. Car accidents, falls, and contact sports such as football are common causes of this injury.

Dislocations also occur during regular activities when the muscles and tendons surrounding the joint are weak. These injuries happen more often in older people who have weaker muscles and balance issues.

What are the symptoms of a dislocation?

Symptoms of a dislocation vary depending on the severity and location of the injury. The symptoms of a dislocated joint include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Instability of the joint
  • Loss of ability to move the joint
  • Visibly deformed joint (bone looks out of place)

Diagnosis and Tests

How is a dislocation diagnosed?

Your doctor may diagnose a dislocation by looking at and moving the joint and asking about what caused the injury.

In some cases, a doctor will use an imaging test called an X-ray to take a picture of your bones. This test allows the doctor to see the exact location and severity of the dislocation.

Management and Treatment

How is a dislocation managed or treated?

Treatment can vary based on the severity of the injury and which joint is dislocated. Applying ice and keeping the joint elevated can help reduce pain while you wait to see a doctor. Treatments for dislocations include:

  • Medication: Your doctor may recommend medication to reduce pain from a dislocation
  • Manipulation: A doctor returns the bones to their proper places.
  • Rest: Once the joint is back in place, you may need to protect it and keep it immobile. Using a sling or splint can help the area heal fully.
  • Rehabilitation: Physical therapy exercises strengthen the muscles and ligaments around the joint to help support it.
  • Surgery: Your doctor may recommend surgery if:
    • Manipulation does not work to put the bones back in place.
    • The dislocation damaged blood vessels or nerves.
    • The dislocation damaged bones, tore muscles or ligaments that need repair.

What complications are associated with dislocation?

Most dislocations don’t have serious or lasting complications. When the bones that make up a joint slide out of place, it can cause the tendons, ligaments, and muscles around the joint to tear. It may also sometimes cause bones to break. Your doctor may recommend surgery to repair these injuries.

Some severely dislocated joints can damage nerves and blood vessels around the joint. When blood is unable to flow to the affected area, the surrounding tissue may die. To minimize the likelihood of damage, it is important to have severely dislocated joints put back in place promptly by a doctor.

What are the risk factors for dislocation?

Anyone can suffer a dislocation. People at higher risk include those:

  • Over age 65, because they are more prone to falls
  • Involved in contact sports
  • With inherited joint diseases such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome

Prevention

Can a dislocation be prevented?

You can take several steps to reduce the risk of a dislocation. They include:

  • Being cautious on stairs to help avoid falls
  • Wearing protective gear during contact sports
  • Staying physically active to keep the muscles and tendons around the joints strong
  • Maintaining a healthy weight to avoid increased pressure on the bones

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with dislocations?

Most dislocations heal completely. They start to feel better as soon as a doctor puts the joint back in place.

Recovery times vary based on the severity of the dislocation and the joint affected. A dislocated finger may feel back to normal in three weeks. However, a hip dislocation could take several months or longer to heal.

People who dislocate their knee or shoulder are more likely to dislocate those joints again because the surrounding tissues have stretched. Wearing protective gear such as a brace during physical activity can reduce the risk of another dislocation.

Living With

When should I call the doctor?

Contact your doctor right away if you think you have a dislocated joint. Do not try to push a dislocation back into place yourself. This effort could damage the muscles and tissue around the joint and lead to complications.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

If you have a dislocated joint, you may want to ask your doctor:

  • How serious is the dislocation?
  • What signs of complications should I look out for?
  • Is there anything I should avoid during recovery?
  • Do I need a follow-up visit and if so, when?

When can I go back to work? When can my child go back to school?

Healing times for dislocations vary depending on the joint affected and the severity of the injury. Most people can return to work or school once a doctor has returned the dislocated joint to its proper location.

A splint or sling can help protect the joint so you can get back to day-to-day activities while the joint heals fully. Your doctor will advise you when you can return to more physical activities such as sports, chores, or heavy work.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/08/2018.

References

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Elbow Dislocation. (https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/elbow-dislocation/) Accessed 7/9/2018.
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Hip Dislocation. (https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/hip-dislocation/) Accessed 7/9/2018.
  • Government of Western Australia Department of Health. First aid for fractures and dislocations. (http://healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/F_I/First-aid-for-fractures-and-dislocations) Accessed 7/9/2018.
  • Merck Manual. Overview of Dislocations. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/dislocations/overview-of-dislocations) Accessed 7/9/2018.
  • National Health Service. Dislocated Shoulder. (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dislocated-shoulder/) Accessed 7/9/2018.

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