When Shoulder Instability Hampers Movement

Posted by Anup Shah, M.D. on Sep 7, 2016, 8:30:00 AM

Your shoulders are responsible for a lot of movement day in and day out. Essentially, any time you pick something up, open a door or wave at someone, you’re engaging your shoulder and all the muscles, ligaments and bones that comprise it. Needless to say, trying to accomplish these movements if you have shoulder instability can be pretty difficult. 

How an Unstable Shoulder Happens

shoulder_instabillity_xray-490823635.jpg“Shoulder instability” is what happens when your shoulder becomes unstable. Typically, this results in shoulder dislocation – where the head of the humerus bone comes out of the shoulder socket. This can mean that the bone is partially out (subluxaton) or completely out (complete dislocation). This is a painful injury that makes it nearly impossible to move your shoulder and it’s typically caused by trauma such as a car wreck or an athletic injury. Generally, shoulder instability comes from a dislocation that injures the ligaments or muscles in your shoulder, preventing them from keeping the bone in the socket with lasting stability over time. After this initial injury, the likelihood of your shoulder becoming dislocated repeatedly increases exponentially. 

How it’s Diagnosed

If you suspect you may have shoulder instability, see your doctor. To diagnose the condition, you will be asked questions about your pain, the type of injury that occurred and your range of motion. The doctor will then test your ligaments by putting small amounts of stress on them to see how much movement you have. You may be sent for X-rays to determine whether or not the shoulder was dislocated and to rule out a bone fracture. 

How Shoulder Instability Is Treated

If it is determined that you have shoulder instability because of damaged ligaments or muscles, your physician will likely try conservative treatment methods first such as ice or heat, anti-inflammatory medication to prevent swelling and pain and physical therapy. These physical therapy periods typically last at least six weeks and include strength training to try and strengthen the damaged area and stabilize it. If it is determined that physical therapy will not work, or has not done enough to repair the issue, surgery is also an option. 

What if I Need Surgery?


Whether or not you need surgery and the type that will work best for your injury is determined on a case-by-case basis. Your doctor will be familiar with the type of dislocations you’re suffering and will have a good idea of the type of surgery you might need. The most common, however, involves going into the injured shoulder arthroscopically and removing any potential torn or degenerated tissue or bone spurs and then reattaching the torn ligament to the bone around the socket of your shoulder. Rehabilitation following this type of surgery depends on your personal medical history and what your doctor feels is best for you, but you will typically be wearing a sling to prevent additional injury, followed by therapy sessions to gradually bring back range of motion over several months.


Dr. Anup Shah is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Kelsey-Seybold specializing in shoulder and knee injuries.




Topics: shoulder injuries, shoulder, shoulder instability, orthopedic

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