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A Short Guide to a Dislocated Shoulder

December 3, 2011

Dislocated shoulders are common in contact sports such as football, rugby, hockey and lacrosse. Other sports that may cause the injury include downhill skiing, volleyball, and soccer. You also may be genetically susceptible to a dislocation, particularly if your shoulder goes out often or easily.

What is a dislocated shoulder? It’s what happens when the bones making up your shoulder joint are moved apart so that the joint no longer functions.

Your shoulder is made up of two bones: the ball (the end of the arm bone, or humerus) and the socket (part of your shoulder blade, or scapula). When the ball part of the joint is dislocated in front of the socket, it is called an anterior dislocation. When it is dislocated behind the socket, it is called a posterior dislocation.

In severe cases, ligaments, tendons, and nerves also can be stretched and injured.

How does it occur?

The most common type of dislocation is an anterior dislocation. It can be caused by a fall onto your outstretched hand or onto the shoulder itself. A posterior dislocation may occur as a result of a powerful direct blow to the front of your shoulder. It may also be caused by a violent twisting of your upper arm, such as that caused by an electric shock or seizure.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom is pain in your shoulder and upper are that is made worse by movement. If you have an anterior dislocation, you will find yourself holding your arm on the dislocated side slightly away from your body with your opposite hand. This will keep your dislocated shoulder in the least uncomfortable position. Your shoulder will have a large bump rising up under the skin in front of your shoulder. Your shoulder will look square instead of round. If you have a posterior dislocation, you will hold your arm on the dislocated side tight against your body. You will have a large bump on the back of your shoulder.

How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your medical history, including your symptoms, previous treatment, and family history. During your physical exam, your doctor will check for:

  • Shoulder tenderness and weakness
  • Numbness in the shoulder area, arm or hand
  • Pain when you move your shoulder or loss of normal shoulder motion
  • Shoulder instability and deformity

Your doctor will arrange for an x-ray of the joint and surrounding areas to confirm the dislocation and check for broken knees.

What is the treatment?
You should go to your doctors office or the hospital emergency room immediately when your shoulder becomes dislocated. Put ice on your shoulder. Cold reduces
swelling by controlling internal bleeding and the buildup of fluids in and around the injured area. Your doctor will reposition the head or ball of the joint back into the joint socket. This can sometimes be done without an anesthetic if it is done within a few minutes after the dislocation occurs.

If you have recurrent dislocations, you may be able to learn how to put your shoulder back into place by yourself. However, even in such cases you should see a doctor promptly to make sure the repositioning has been done properly.

Fifteen to thirty minutes after the injury, your dislocated shoulder will probably be quite swollen and painful. You may then need to be given an intravenous (IV) pain medication and muscle relaxant or general anesthesia before the doctor repositions your shoulder.

Sometimes local anesthetic can be injected into the joint to help the doctor reposition the bones. After the repositioning, your doctor will have your shoulder x-rayed to make sure it is in the correct position.

Your doctor will place your shoulder and arm in a type of sling called a shoulder immobilizer. It will aid healing keeping your arm next to your body and stopping you from moving your shoulder.

You will keep your shoulder and arm in the immobilizer for 2 to 3 weeks. You may begin shoulder rehabilitation exercises during this time or after you are no longer wearing the immobilizer.

Your doctor may prescribe an anti  inflammatory medication or other pain medication. You should continue to place ice packs on your shoulder for 20 to 30 minutes every 3 to 4 hours until the pain and swelling are gone.

In some cases, surgery may be needed to get the shoulder repositioned correctly or if it continues to dislocate. If  your shoulder joint becomes weak because of repeated dislocation, you doctor may recommend an operation to tighten the ligaments that hold the joint together.

When can I return to my sport or activity?

The goal of rehabilitation is to return you to your sport or activity as soon as is safely possible. If you return too soon you may worsen your injury, which could lead to permanent damage. Everyone recovers from injury at a different rate. Return to your sport will be determined by how soon your shoulder recovers, not by how many days or weeks it has been since your injury occurred. You may safely return to your sport or activity when:

  • Your injured shoulder has full range of motion without pain
  • Your injured shoulder has regained normal strength compared to the uninjured shoulder.

In throwing sports, you must gradually build your tolerance to throwing. This means you should start with gentle tossing and gradually throw harder. In contact sports, your shoulder must not be tender to touch and contact should progress from minimal contact to harder contact. If you feel your arm popping out of the shoulder joint, contact your doctor.


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