The Dislocated Shoulder

A dislocated shoulder is an injury in which the head of the humerus (arm bone) comes out of the socket formed by the glenoid cavity of the scapula (shoulder blade). Out of all of the joints in the body, the shoulder is the most frequently dislocated because of its instability and wide range of motion.

The shoulder joint can be partially or fully dislocated, and it is possible to injure ligaments during the process of dislocation. Injured ligaments, whether they are stretched or fully torn, increase the pain and healing time of the injury. A dislocated shoulder is almost always caused by a traumatic injury to the joint, such as a fall, a sports injury or a car accident.

If you dislocate your shoulder, you may be able to see that the shoulder has been dislocated because it will look crooked or out-of-place. Other symptoms include swelling, pain, bruising or not being able to move the injured shoulder joint. Sometimes you may not be able to tell the difference between a bone fracture and a dislocation, but both injuries require medical attention. It is recommended that you do not try to pop the shoulder joint back into place on your own, because it is possible that you could injure other structures in the shoulder joints such as the ligaments or nerves. While waiting for medical attention, try not to move the joint. You can use ice to try to reduce the swelling while you are waiting to see a doctor.

People who go to the doctor with a dislocated shoulder will probably have an X-ray taken of the shoulder joint to see if the bones are fractured, and possibly an MRI scan to look at the soft tissues, such as the ligaments, and see if they are damaged and to what extent. If nerve damage is suspected, a test called an electromyograph (EMG) may be performed as well.

Treatment of a dislocation involves getting the bones to go back into their proper places. The patient is usually sedated but not given general anesthetic for this procedure, except in rare cases. After the doctor pushes the humerus back into its proper place, the level of pain usually decreases dramatically. If muscle, tendons or ligaments have been severely damaged during a shoulder dislocation, sometimes surgery is performed to repair these structures and increase the stability of the shoulder joint. Surgery is usually only done in repeat cases or cases with a lot of complications. Medications, including pain medications and medications used to relax the muscles, may be given to be taken while the injury heals. The shoulder joint may be immobilized with a splint to encourage healing; the amount of time that the joint is immobilized varies.

If you have dislocated your shoulder, you may be more susceptible to re-injuring the joint in the future. After a dislocation, your shoulder joint may be less stable than it was before and more vulnerable to dislocation with less force necessary to dislocate the joint. Another potential complication of a dislocated shoulder is pinching a nerve in the area of the shoulder joint; this can cause nerve pain, numbness or tingling that radiates down the arm.


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