Have you ever dislocated your shoulder?
It can be very painful!
If you have never experienced this type of injury before, then you may be wondering how to know if you have dislocated the shoulder.
Let’s break down the following:
- What a dislocated shoulder is
- Signs and symptoms of a dislocation
- Initial treatment
- Long-term expectations
What is a Dislocated Shoulder?
Recall that the shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint, also known as the glenohumeral joint.
It consists of the head of the humerus (the ball) situated in the glenoid cavity of the shoulder blade (the socket).
A dislocation occurs when the ball of the upper arm pops out of the socket. Ouch!
Often times, a shoulder dislocation is confused with a shoulder subluxation; however, these two terms are different from one another.
A dislocation causes the ball to completely move out of the socket, whereas a subluxation causes the ball to only partially move out of the socket.
A dislocation will typically cause injury and damage to the surrounding soft tissues that normally help to stabilize and support the shoulder, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and nerves.
Signs and Symptoms of a Dislocated Shoulder
Okay, so now that we know what a dislocated shoulder is, how do you know if you have one?
Typically, a shoulder dislocation is caused by some type of blunt force or trauma. Examples of this include a sports injury, fall or car accident.
Some may have a medical diagnosis that makes their joints excessively lax and hypermobile, which can increase your odds of dislocating the shoulder. Examples of this would be Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or experiencing a dislocation from long-term laxity after a stroke.
If you have dislocated your shoulder, then you likely will experience one or more of the following:
- Sudden and intense shoulder pain
- Sudden weakness in the shoulder and arm
- You may be unable to move the arm at all
- You may see a deformity in the shoulder, indicating the ball is out of the socket
- Numbness or tingling
So, if you suspect you could have dislocated your shoulder, what do you do?
First things first, go seek medical attention immediately. The emergency room (ER) is the best place for this.
An orthopedic specialist will typically be able to relocate, or reduce, the shoulder back into the joint. DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF. Save the work for the professionals.
On your way to the ER, try to keep the arm supported and immobilized as much as you can. Ice can be used to help with pain control.
After the shoulder has been put back into the socket, your doctor may recommend immobilization and rest in a sling for a certain amount of time to allow healing. Icing and any medically recommended medications can be used for continued pain management.
Rarely will surgery be needed to fix a dislocation. Instances that may require surgery could include not being able to relocate the shoulder back into the socket, extensive soft tissue damage from the dislocation needing repair, or continued dislocations that won’t heal conservatively.
Once your doctor clears you from the sling, they will likely recommend gradually returning to exercise and functional use of the arm. It’s best if this is done with the help of a rehab specialist, such as a Physical Therapist (PT) or an Occupational Therapist (OT).
Your therapist will be able to examine the shoulder after the immobilization period to get a baseline assessment of available range of motion, strength, functional use, and pain status.
It’s important, once allowed, to begin gently using the arm; otherwise, you can be at risk of developing a frozen shoulder. On the flip side though, you have to make sure not to over-do things. The recovery process to regain full use of the arm and shoulder again can take time after this type of injury (anywhere from weeks to months).
If you seek medical attention immediately after your dislocation, and follow the instructions of your doctor and rehab specialist, there’s no reason you can’t make a full recovery.
If, however, you don’t allow the proper time frame for healing and rehab process, you can be at a higher risk to dislocate the shoulder again or never regain full use.
The only other scenario that could prevent you from fully recovering is if you have a medical condition contributing to the dislocation and/or ongoing joint laxity. In cases like this, long-term management strategies with your doctor and therapist can be discussed to keep the shoulder as supported and functional as possible, as well as manage any pain present.
Just remember, the most important thing to do with a dislocated shoulder is to get medical attention and treatment immediately. Don’t wait!