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St. Mary's Center for Orthopaedics

Shoulder Dislocation

What is Dislocation of the Shoulder?

Dislocation of the shoulder means the displacement of the upper arm bone (humerus) out of the shoulder joint. The shoulder joint is the most frequently dislocated major joint of the body, often caused by a significant force that separates the shoulder joint’s ball (the top rounded portion of the upper arm bone, or humerus) away from the joint’s socket (glenoid). The shoulder can dislocate in several ways, including the following:

  • Forward and downward dislocation. These are the most common types of dislocations, which are usually the result of falling on an outstretched hand or on the shoulder itself.
  • Backward dislocation. This type of dislocation may be caused by a direct blow to the front of the shoulder, or the violent twisting of the upper arm.

A shoulder can be partially dislocated (the head of the upper arm is partially out of the shoulder socket) or completely dislocated (the head of the upper arm is completely out of the shoulder socket).  A dislocation may also result in a fracture of the upper arm bone. Other complications may include the following:

  • Nerve damage
  • Damage to an artery
  • Muscle damage

What are the Symptoms of a Shoulder Dislocation?

The following are the most common symptoms of a dislocated shoulder. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the upper arm and shoulder, which is usually worse during movement
  • Swelling
  • Numbness and weakness
  • Bruising
  • Deformity of the shoulder (in a forward dislocation)

The symptoms of a dislocated shoulder may resemble other conditions or medical problems. The muscles may have spasms from the disruption, and this can make it hurt more. When the shoulder dislocates time and again, there is shoulder instability.

How is a Shoulder Dislocation Diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for a dislocated shoulder may include an X-ray.  It is important that the doctor know how the dislocation happened and whether the shoulder had ever been dislocated before.

Treatment for a Shoulder Dislocation

Specific treatment for a shoulder dislocation will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the injury
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the injury
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Moving the head of the upper arm bone back into the shoulder joint, usually with an anesthetic
  • Immobilization of the shoulder with a sling
  • Rehabilitation
  • Surgery if non-surgical measures do not restore stability

Your doctor may immobilize the shoulder in a sling or other device for several weeks following treatment. Resting the shoulder is needed. The sore area can be iced 3 to 4 times a day.

After the pain and swelling go down, the doctor will prescribe rehabilitation exercises for you. These help restore the shoulder’s range of motion and strengthen the muscles. Rehabilitation may also help prevent dislocating the shoulder again in the future. Rehabilitation will begin with gentle muscle toning exercises. Later, weight training can be added.

If shoulder dislocation becomes a chronic condition, a brace can sometimes help. However, if therapy and bracing fail, surgery may be needed to repair or tighten the torn or stretched ligaments that help hold the joint in place, particularly in young athletes.