A sprained shoulder can be painful and inconvenient, disrupting your daily routine and keeping you from enjoying your active lifestyle. And while sprained shoulders do eventually heal, the recovery process is a gradual one — the timeline for complete recovery can range from several weeks to several months. As you develop a treatment plan for your sprained shoulder, we’ll walk you through what to expect during your rehabilitation.
Separating Sprains from Strains
The terms “sprain” and “strain” are often used interchangeably, but they actually refer to two different injuries. A strain refers to a stretching or tearing of a tendon or muscle, while a sprain is a stretching or tearing of a ligament. Most shoulder injuries are sprains.
The shoulder consists of four joints that connect the scapula, acromion, clavicle, and sternum. Any one of these can be sprained, resulting in severe pain and a limited range of motion. The most commonly sprained joint in the shoulder is the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, which can be injured if the ligaments that hold the collarbone to the shoulder blade are stretched, ruptured, or separated. This type of sprain is often referred to as an AC sprain or a separated shoulder.
AC sprains are typically evaluated according to the Rockwood scale, which classifies the injury on a scale of 1 to 6 based on the extent of the damage. Most sprains fall into one of the first three grades: grade 1 sprains are defined by minor damage to the ligament with no separation of bones. A grade 2 separation refers to a rupture of the AC ligament, while a grade 3 separation refers to ruptures of both the AC and the nearby coracoclavicular ligaments.
Grade 3 separations are often confused with dislocated shoulders, since they can result in a visible upward displacement of the collarbone. The much rarer grade 4, 5, and 6 separations are more severe versions of a grade 3 separation.
If you’re an athlete who’s recently sprained a shoulder, you’re probably wondering: how long will it be before I can go back to my sport? The short answer: recovery time for a shoulder sprain varies according to the severity of the injury, with more serious sprains requiring more time to heal.
Grade 1 sprains, for example, typically begin to heal within one to two weeks, with most patients resuming normal activity shortly thereafter. Grade 2 sprains generally take at least four weeks to heal, while grade 3 sprains can take as long as six to eight weeks to heal fully. If the sprain requires surgery, you may need as long as several months to fully recover.
Recovery times can be accelerated with some simple lifestyle changes and a proactive treatment plan. You should regularly rest, ice, and compress the affected shoulder until pain and swelling subside. Anti-inflammatory medications and placing the arm in a sling can also ensure a quicker recovery. Then, we recommend that you begin a physical therapy program designed to restore the shoulder’s range of motion and rebuild the surrounding muscles.
Since athletes are much more likely to re-injure their shoulder, they often require more time to ensure a proper recovery. In addition, any patients with jobs that requires heavy lifting may have a longer recovery timeline, since their injuries are often caused by repeated stress to the shoulder. Take your personal circumstances into account when planning for recovery, and most importantly, don’t rush the process: give yourself all the time you’ll need to feel 100%.