Here’s how to identify a shoulder dislocation, and what you can expect throughout your recovery.
A dislocated shoulder is an injury that occurs when the ball of the shoulder joint is forced out of its socket. This painful condition often affects athletes, and can impact your quality of life for several weeks following the injury.
Some symptoms of a dislocated shoulder include strong pain, a feeling of heaviness, and instability in the shoulder. The joint will appear misshapen, and your range of motion will be restricted. A partially dislocated shoulder may slip or click back into place, but with a traumatic dislocation you will be unable to move your arm, and will experience intense pain or numbness.
Shoulder dislocations may vary in degree: a complete dislocation occurs when the ball joint of the upper arm is forced fully out of the shoulder socket. A partial dislocation or subluxation is when the ball does not fully leave the socket.
As the shoulder joint is highly flexible, it is particularly prone to injury. If the shoulder is rotated too far, the bone may simply pop out of the socket. Wear and tear on the cartilage can also lead to instability and dislocation. If you’ve dislocated your shoulder in the past, it is more likely to happen again, in some cases frequently. With a chronically unstable shoulder, overhead motions may be enough to cause another subluxation.
Most dislocations are the result of trauma caused by a car accident or hard fall, for example. They are common for physically active people who play contact sports, or sports that may involve the occasional tumble, such as gymnastics or skiing. Athletes can also have looser ligaments caused by repetitive movements, which put them at a higher risk for dislocations. In certain rare cases, a seizure or electric shock may force the joint out of place.
SHOULDER DISLOCATION VS. SEPARATION
Shoulder dislocations and shoulder separations are different injuries, though they can have similar causes and symptoms. A dislocation, which is more common, affects the shoulder socket. A separation, on the other hand, refers to stretched or ripped ligaments between the collarbone and shoulder blade.
Both conditions cause severe pain, swelling, bruising, and an inability to use the joint. They can also both cause a visible deformity of the joint, though a separation usually manifests as a bump at the top of the shoulder, while a dislocation generally causes a bump in the back or front. Be sure to talk to a doctor for a definitive diagnosis of your condition.
TREATMENT AND RECOVERY
Dislocated shoulders demand immediate attention. An orthopedic specialist can perform imaging tests to examine the joint and develop a proactive treatment regimen.
Many dislocation injuries respond to conservative treatment. Your doctor will likely have you rest the arm in a sling for a few days to a few weeks, while avoiding overhead motions or lifting heavy items. You can ice the area for 20 minutes every few hours, and a few days after the initial injury you can use a heating pad to relax the muscles. Your doctor will likely suggest anti-inflammatories like aspirin or ibuprofen, and may prescribe a muscle relaxer.
Your recovery plan will generally include a course of physical therapy centered around stretches to ensure flexibility, restore range of motion, and avoid a ‘frozen’ or stiff shoulder. Using aids like resistance bands, you can also strengthen the rotator cuff and surrounding muscles in order to stabilize and protect the joint. Continue to avoid more rigorous athletic activity for a total of six to twelve weeks, as you may by at an increased risk for future dislocations during this period.
Your doctor may suggest arthroscopic surgery if you’ve suffered from a severe dislocation. In this case, you’ll keep a sling on the shoulder for about a month following the procedure, except when engaging in gentle physical therapy exercises to retain flexibility. When the sling is removed, a few weeks of strength training should set you up to resume most normal activity — but it may take up to five months to fully recover from surgery, during which time it’s important not to overstress the limb.
If you’ve experienced a dislocated shoulder, make an appointment with an orthopedic specialist today. The doctors and surgeons at New York Bone & Joint can help you get started on a proactive treatment program and ensure that you’re doing all you can to prevent future injury.