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Is My Shoulder Dislocated?

dislocated shoulder
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While painful at first, a dislocated shoulder generally heals with rest and physical therapy.

The shoulder joint is made up of a ball at the end of the upper arm that rests in the shoulder socket. The joint is exceptionally flexible, giving the arm its wide range of motion. Unfortunately, the structure of the shoulder also makes it susceptible to injuries like dislocation.

When the shoulder is dislocated, the ball dislodges from the socket. This is typically caused by a severe fall, the force of a blow during contact sports, or blunt trauma from a car accident.

A shoulder dislocation can be full or partial. In a full dislocation, the ball leaves the socket entirely. Partial, or subluxation, means a portion of the ball remains in the socket.

If you’ve injured your shoulder, you’ll want to know if you’ve dislocated it or have another type of injury. An orthopedic specialist can diagnose the condition with an X-ray and a physical exam, but there are important signs you can observe at home that point to a dislocated shoulder.

How to Spot a Shoulder Dislocation

A shoulder dislocation is often mistaken for a shoulder separation, but the two conditions are quite different. A dislocation involves the ball dislodging from the socket of the shoulder joint. On the other hand, a shoulder separation occurs when you tear or stretch the ligaments connecting the collarbone to the shoulder blade.

The symptoms of both injuries are similar, which may lead to confusion. Both cause severe to moderate pain, swelling, and restricted movement. The shoulder may also appear misshapen. However, a bump on the back or front of the shoulder indicates a dislocation, while a bump at the top of the shoulder means it’s a separation.

Treating a Dislocated Shoulder

If you’ve suffered a shoulder dislocation, you should immediately refrain from moving the joint or doing heavy lifting; instead, place your arm in a sling or splint to immobilize it. Keeping the joint stable prevents any damage to the nerves, muscles, and ligaments around the shoulder.

Over-the-counter pain medications can alleviate discomfort, while icing the shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day further reduces inflammation. Once the pain decreases, you can apply heat to the shoulder to loosen up tight muscles.

After being diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder, your doctor will likely perform a closed reduction to gently move the ball back into the shoulder socket. After that, you’ll undergo physical therapy to increase your range of motion and strengthen the shoulder muscles. Restoring the joint’s mobility is important to help you avoid a “frozen” or stiff shoulder. You may need to wear a sling for several weeks.

Nearly all dislocations heal with conservative, non-surgical treatment. Your doctor may recommend you wear a sling and avoid strenuous activities. Unless the surrounding ligaments or labrum — the rim of cartilage lining the shoulder socket — have been torn or the dislocation is especially severe, surgery isn’t necessary to heal a dislocated shoulder. 

People who’ve suffered one shoulder dislocation are prone to another. So, even after you resume normal activities, your doctor will continue to monitor your shoulder to ensure it doesn’t slip out of place again.

Let Us Heal Your Shoulder

The orthopedic doctors at New York Bone and Joint Specialists treat all types of shoulder injuries. If you’ve hurt your shoulder and think it may be dislocated, we can diagnose the injury and suggest effective treatment options. Contact our office today for an appointment.

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