The shoulder is the body’s most mobile joint and allows for a wide range of movements, but as a result, it is the easiest joint to dislocate. Shoulder dislocations account for nearly half of all dislocation visits to the emergency room.
Dr. Jonathan Myer, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, specializes in treating shoulder- and sports-related injuries. Below, Dr. Myer answers frequently asked questions on dislocated shoulders.
What is a dislocated shoulder?
A dislocated shoulder occurs when the ball portion of the shoulder comes out of the shoulder socket. The socket bone is quite shallow, which allows for its mobility. With its shallow socket, the shoulder needs additional support to keep the ball and socket together. The stability of the shoulder joint depends on the surrounding soft tissue structures (labrum, ligaments, tendons and muscles). When a shoulder dislocation occurs, these surrounding soft tissues are injured or damaged.
Shoulder “ball and socket” instability episodes can be characterized as partial or complete, depending on whether the ball partially or completely comes out of the socket. A partial dislocation is referred to as a subluxation.
What causes the shoulder to dislocate?
- Sports injuries
- Trauma, such as a blow to the shoulder
- Falling onto your shoulder or outstretched arm
Other risk factors include:
- Repetitive overhead sports activities such as swimming, baseball and tennis
- Being “double jointed” or “loose jointed”
What are the symptoms of a dislocated shoulder?
- Visible deformity — the shoulder looks out of place
- Intense pain with possible spasms
- Inability to move the shoulder joint
- Swelling or bruising
- Numbness or tingling near the shoulder or down the arm
Does a dislocated shoulder need immediate medical attention?
Yes, if your shoulder is dislocated, you need to seek medical attention immediately for evaluation. An X-ray can be helpful to confirm the diagnosis and check for fractures in the bone.
How is a shoulder dislocation treated?
A complete shoulder dislocation is first treated nonsurgically. A doctor or health care provider places the ball portion of the shoulder back into the shoulder socket through manual manipulation. The dislocated shoulder is relocated into proper position, which generally relieves the person’s severe pain. This process is generally accomplished with some mild to moderate sedation. After the shoulder is put back into place, a sling is put on the shoulder and an X-ray is performed to make sure the shoulder is in proper position. The doctor will evaluate and determine whether to treat the injury nonoperatively or consider surgery.
Nonoperative treatment consists of initial rest followed by rehabilitation to restore the range of motion, strength and stability of the shoulder. An MRI may be necessary to check for tears in the socket lining (labrum), ligaments or shoulder’s tendons (rotator cuff) that surround the ball and socket joint. Tears in these surrounding structures can lead to recurrent shoulder dislocations and weakness, and hinder arm use. Shoulder surgery may be necessary to repair a torn labrum, ligament or tendon.
Today, surgery can be performed arthroscopically. Arthroscopic treatment has many benefits compared to the alternative option — open shoulder surgery — including smaller incisions, less soft tissue trauma, less pain and a faster, easier recovery.
What is the likelihood of experiencing another dislocation of the same shoulder?
If you have dislocated your shoulder once, you are more likely to have it happen again. Tears in the surrounding soft tissue structures make the shoulder more susceptible to future dislocations. Recurrent dislocation results in further damage to the shoulder. To prevent recurrence, it is recommended that you consult a doctor who can help you determine the best course of treatment for your injury.
Learn more about treating shoulder injuries.