What’s the Difference Between a Separated and Dislocated Shoulder?

alex boyd

While they’re often mistaken for each other, shoulder separations and shoulder dislocations are caused by different injuries, and respond best to distinct courses of treatment.

Are you experiencing pain in your shoulder, or have you noticed a deformity in its shape? If you’ve recently suffered a traumatic injury to your shoulder, you may be suffering from a separated or dislocated shoulder. If you’re looking for clarification regarding your condition, here’s what you need to know about each of these common injuries.

The Conditions

dislocated shoulder is an injury that occurs when the upper arm bone (the ball of the shoulder joint) pops out of the shoulder socket. Since the shoulder is one of the most mobile joints, with a relatively shallow socket, it is also one of the most common sites of dislocation. A separated shoulder, by contrast, occurs when the ligaments that connect the collarbone to the shoulder blade are stretched or torn. As a result, it doesn’t affect the ball and socket of the shoulder joint.

Causes and Symptoms

Dislocated shoulders and separated shoulders can be caused by many of the same injuries. Both often result from a direct blow to the shoulder, or physical activities that involve falling such as downhill skiing, gymnastics, and rock climbing. Contact sports like football and rugby also increase the likelihood of sustaining either injury.

Similarly, dislocated shoulders and separated shoulders share many of the same symptoms. Common symptoms of a dislocated shoulder include moderate to severe pain, swelling, bruising, a visibly deformed shoulder, and an inability to move the joint. Common symptoms of a separated shoulder include moderate to severe pain, swelling, bruising, a noticeably raised bump at the top of the shoulder, a restricted range of motion, and a general sense of weakness in the arm or shoulder.

Diagnosis and Treatment

A dislocated or separated shoulder needs to be reset as soon as possible, so contact a doctor immediately if you think you’ve suffered either injury. Regularly ice the affected area, and try not to move the shoulder joint. Your doctor should be able to diagnose your condition after conducting a physical examination and taking some X-rays to determine the extent of the damage.

Treatment for a dislocated shoulder can include closed reduction, a procedure during which the doctor will gently maneuver the bones back into position. Any dislocations resulting in tears to the surrounding cartilage and ligaments or recurrent dislocations may need to be treated with surgery. After the bones have been realigned, a sling or splint may be used to immobilize the shoulder, ensuring a proper recovery. Physical therapy may also be used to strengthen the joint and restore complete range of motion. Since a shoulder is more likely to become dislocated again after the first dislocation, patients need to monitor it closely for any changes.

A physical exam is often sufficient to diagnose a separated shoulder, but X-rays can be used to confirm the injury and determine its severity. In most cases, rest and care, such as regularly applying ice, are sufficient to help a separated shoulder heal. Physical therapy may also be prescribed. If pain persists, or if the separation is particularly severe, surgery may be needed to reconnect the torn ligaments.

Book an appointment

Our Locations