Dislocated Shoulder

What is a Dislocated Shoulder?

A dislocated shoulder occurs when the upper arm bone (the humerus) becomes disjointed from the shoulder. This is one of the most mobile body joints and gives the arm the ability to move in different directions. It is the joint on the body that is most often dislocated.

What are the Symptoms of a Dislocated Shoulder?

The main sign of a dislocated shoulder is pain. When cartilage, muscles and tissues that support the joint are stretched and torn, it cause the humerus to be pulled out of the socket and causes significant pain.

You will likely be unable to move your arm in any direction and the muscles around the joint may spasm. It may feel like there is a bulge in the joint. You may also have some light-headedness, sweating, weakness, and even nausea or vomiting. Some people even pass out from the pain.

Dislocated Shoulder Causes

A dislocated shoulder is a painful problem usually caused by a physical injury. Injuries can happen almost anywhere, but dislocations usually occur during incidents like falls and motor accidents, or physical activities such as sports and hard labor. Because your shoulder bone is so mobile, there are many different types of dislocations, and causes and symptoms can vary depending on the injury. Extreme rotation of the arm can cause dislocation, as well as blunt force trauma.

A dislocation does not necessarily mean the bone is fully out of the socket. While a hard blow to the shoulder or twisting the arm can cause the bone to pop out and become fully dislocated, partial dislocations are common. This is when the bone is set unevenly both in and out of the socket. These can be just as painful and may require different treatment. The bone can pop out forwards, backwards, and even downwards.

How is a Dislocated Shoulder Treated?

Treatment of a dislocated shoulder is focused on returning the head of the arm bone back into the joint. What kind of treatment that is used depends on the situation and the experiences of the doctor.

Treatment includes

The aim is to reduce the dislocation with a minimum amount of anesthesia. It is usually done without any surgery.

Scapular manipulation: the shoulder blade is rotated and the humeral head is dislodged, which encourages spontaneous relocation.

External rotation: You lie flat or sit up while the doctor flexes the elbow at 90 degrees and then rotates the shoulder outward; with gentle pushing the shoulder should spontaneously relocate.

Stimson technique: you lie on your stomach while the arm that is injured hangs over the side of the cot; a weight is attached which allows the joint to reduce and overcome the muscle spasms.

Traction-counter traction: You lie flat and a sheet is looped around the armpit; the doctor pulls the arm downward while an assistant applies counter traction by pulling on the sheet, returning the arm to the proper position.

Open reduction: Used in cases where a broken bone is caught in the joint and preventing relocation; this involves surgery and is done by an orthopedic surgeon.

Medications may be used if you are in a lot of pain and need to relax during a procedure.  This will relax the surrounding muscles and reduce the pain level.

Dislocated Shoulder Prevention

While there is no way to fully avoid accidents, you can protect yourself against unfortunate events like shoulder dislocations. The shoulder is the most common joint to become dislocated, due to the wide range of mobility and the vulnerability of the shoulder. Take care to protect these areas of the body during activities, and wear proper padding and protective gear if you plan on playing rough sports.

Stretching and lifting weights can also strengthen the muscles around this area, increasing flexibility and reducing chances of dislocation. Be careful when doing hard labor or dangerous activities like climbing ladders, going down stairs, or getting in and out of tall vehicles. People are most likely to break wrists and dislocate shoulders in the event of a fall, so avoiding accident-prone situations may increase your chances of avoiding a dislocated shoulder.

However, it is important to remember that accidents occur anywhere, anytime, and to anyone, so if you believe that your shoulder may be dislocated, get to a doctor immediately and receive proper care.

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Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 14, 2017