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Dislocated shoulder: What to do, symptoms and treatment

A dislocated shoulder occurs when the upper arm bone partially or completely protrudes from the socket. It is painful and results in temporary loss of mobility and function of the affected arm. In the case of a dislocated shoulder, you must consult a doctor as soon as possible in order to put the joint back in place.

Reducing the joint, or putting it back in place, can significantly relieve the severe pain associated with a dislocation. However, full recovery may require the use of a sling, physical therapy. In the most severe cases, surgical stabilization of the shoulder joint.

What is a dislocated shoulder?

A shoulder dislocation occurs when the upper arm bone, the humerus, partially or completely protrudes from the shoulder bone called the glenoid. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body and therefore the most often dislocated. The shoulder can dislocate forward, backward or downward. Front dislocations, also called anterior dislocations, account for approximately 97% of all cases. An anterior dislocation usually occurs when the arm is extended to the side and rotated backward. When the bone protrudes from the socket, it causes damage to surrounding tissues that help stabilize the joint. When a person dislocates their shoulder, they often experience severe pain and loss of mobility in the shoulder. Sometimes a change in the shape of the shoulder is also noticeable.

Causes of shoulder dislocation

Force exerted on the shoulder joint when it is in a vulnerable position can lead to shoulder dislocation.

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Possible causes include:

a fall
a car accident
being hit during a contact sport

Dislocated Shoulder Risk Factors

Anyone can dislocate their shoulder. However, it is more common in certain groups of people, including:

young people who practice contact sports
the elderly, especially after a fall
Research shows that the younger a person is when they first dislocate, the higher the likelihood that they will dislocate again.

This is likely due to young people engaging in high-risk sports and activities. The more the shoulder dislocates, the more the tissues that stabilize the joint stretch. A glenoid fracture that sometimes occurs when the shoulder dislocates is also a risk factor for recurrent dislocations.

Once the shoulder dislocates for the first time, certain steps can be taken to help prevent recurrent dislocations, including:

undergo physical therapy
do strengthening exercises
stretching the muscles around the shoulders
avoiding high-risk sports and activities

Symptoms of a Dislocated Shoulder

People who suffer from a dislocated shoulder may experience symptoms such as:

pain that comes on suddenly
decreased shoulder range of motion
feel the bone come out of the cavity
a bursting sensation in the shoulder
numbness or tingling in the arm
a change in the shape of the shoulder
bruises
muscular weakness
swelling around the shoulder

When to contact a doctor

To put the shoulder back in place, a doctor will usually need an X-ray of the joint to determine the direction of the dislocation.

It is always best to seek immediate medical attention if the affected arm or hand begins to turn blue or if the shoulder experiences swelling, worsening pain, or both, in the arm, shoulder, or hand. In order to properly diagnose a dislocated shoulder, your doctor will likely start by asking about the symptoms and medical history. He will then perform a physical examination.

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Dislocated shoulder treatment

There are several techniques that doctors use to perform a shoulder joint reduction. The exact method for returning the shoulder joint to its normal position may vary slightly depending on the doctor’s experience and the direction of the dislocation. Before a reduction, some doctors inject a local anesthetic into the joint to help reduce pain. Doctors often opt for intravenous sedation to allow the muscles around the shoulder to relax.

After the reduction, a doctor will take new X-rays to make sure the joint is in the correct position. When a person wears a harness for a period of time, their doctor often suggests physical therapy to help them regain range of motion and strengthen the muscles around the shoulder.

In some cases, a person may need surgery to stabilize the joint. Most first dislocations do not require surgery. However, it is necessary to operate on a shoulder that continues to dislocate, in order to prevent further dislocations and to minimize the risk of other long-term problems, such as degenerative arthritis.

Home treatment

In most cases, a shoulder dislocation requires medical attention to help reduce the risk of recurrence and minimize the likelihood of complications.

While waiting for medical treatment, there are steps you can take to relieve symptoms. For example, using the method known as RGCE, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. This will protect the joint and prevent swelling.

The shoulder joint is the most frequently dislocated joint in the body. Force exerted on the shoulder joint when it is in a vulnerable position, such as when someone is throwing a ball, can lead to shoulder dislocation.

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The dislocation is painful and can temporarily cause reduced mobility. If one does not receive proper treatment, recurrent dislocations and potential long-term problems, such as arthritis, can occur.

Sources

Abrams, R., et al. (2020). Shoulder dislocations overview.

Cutts, S., et al. (2009). Anterior shoulder dislocation.

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