Imagine you’re enjoying an epic game of flag football with friends when one of your opponents decides to make the game full-contact. All of a sudden, you’re on the ground in pain. The impact of the tackle and the fall have dislocated your shoulder. It can be a frightening and excruciating experience.
You’ve likely seen a depiction of a shoulder dislocation on TV or in a movie, when the doctor pops the shoulder back into place. While this is one way to begin treatment of a dislocated shoulder, it typically takes a few weeks of treatment and recovery before your shoulder is back to full function.
What Is a Dislocated Shoulder?
The shoulder is a fascinating joint that allows us to move freely and perform many of our daily activities, but since it is the body’s most mobile joint, it’s more susceptible to dislocation than any other joint. When it does dislocate, your upper arm bone (humerus) pops out of the shoulder blade’s cup-shaped socket.
Symptoms may include:
- Intense pain
- Inability to move your shoulder joint
- An obviously deformed shoulder
- Swelling and/or bruising
- Numbness, weakness or tingling around the shoulder, down the arm or in the neck
- Shoulder muscle spasms
Shoulder dislocations are most common during athletic activities, especially contact sports, but they can also occur any time your shoulder receives a tough blow, such as in a car accident or a hard fall. In some cases, extreme rotation of the shoulder joint can also cause dislocation.
Your shoulder can fully or partially dislocate, and it can happen in any direction (forward, backward, or downward), with forward being the most common. A partial dislocation occurs when your upper arm bone does not completely pop out of your shoulder socket. A shoulder dislocation can also be complicated by the tearing of fibrous tissue that joins your shoulder bones together.
If you suspect you have a dislocated shoulder, seek medical attention immediately. Until you see the doctor, don’t move your shoulder joint and don’t try to maneuver the shoulder back into place on your own. This can lead to permanent damage. If possible, pick up a sling from your local drugstore to help keep your shoulder in its current location. Apply ice to your shoulder to reduce pain and swelling.
Your doctor may decide to perform any of the following treatments for your shoulder dislocation:
- Closed reduction - Your doctor will try to gently maneuver your shoulder joint back into the socket. This can be quite painful, so you may be given a muscle relaxant or general anesthetic before the procedure. Once the joint is back in place, your pain should decrease significantly.
- Immobilization - Your doctor may use a special splint or sling to keep your shoulder from moving for a few days or weeks.
- Medication - Your doctor may prescribe a pain reliever or muscle relaxant to keep pain at a minimum while your shoulder heals.
- Surgery - You may require surgery if your shoulder dislocation has also caused torn ligaments or tendons or has damaged nerves or blood vessels around the shoulder joint. Your doctor may also recommend surgery if you have frequent dislocations.
In most cases of typical shoulder dislocation, rehabilitation is a gradual process that takes a few weeks. The process is designed to restore range of motion, strength, and stability in your shoulder joint. You shouldn’t resume physical activity until your doctor has given you the okay, since resuming too soon can cause further injury or future dislocations.
Dr. Shah is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Kelsey-Seybold specializing in shoulder and knee injuries. He specializes in Sports Medicine, advanced arthroscopic surgery, cartilage repair, and shoulder reconstruction, including shoulder arthroscopy, and shoulder replacements. Dr. Shah completed fellowships in Sports Medicine/arthroscopic surgery and shoulder reconstruction. Through education and teamwork, he forms a partnership with you to manage and treat your condition.