Dislocated Shoulder

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What is a dislocated shoulder?

The shoulder is the only joint in the body that can move in every direction, but this mobility comes at a certain price. The ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder is rather shallow, which means the ‘ball’ of the upper arm bone (humerus) can easily become dislodged from the ‘socket’ (the glenohumeral joint). Despite strong ligaments holding the joint together, movement of the ball out of the cup-like socket can cause a dislocated shoulder.

Shoulder dislocation—also called a shoulder subluxation—is painful. It also causes you to lose the use of your arm until the head of the humerus is put back in the socket. The humeral head can become dislocated in several directions, including the front (anterior shoulder dislocation) and back (posterior shoulder dislocation). Most people recognize common signs and symptoms of a dislocated shoulder, which include a visible deformity of the upper arm.

Applying significant force to the shoulder, such as from falling or being involved in a car accident, can cause a dislocated shoulder. Dislocation can occur in anyone, though men in their teens and 20s who engage in rigorous physical activity are more likely than other populations to experience a shoulder dislocation.

You should seek prompt medical attention for a dislocated shoulder to avoid possible complications like torn ligaments or a disrupted blood supply to the arm. For simple shoulder dislocations, a doctor usually can align (reduce) the joint right in the emergency room. Dislocation from an injury that involves broken bones or severe soft tissue damage will require surgery to repair.

What are the symptoms of a dislocated shoulder?

If you dislocate your shoulder, you probably will know it right away. The most common dislocated shoulder symptoms are:

  • Immediate, severe pain

  • Inability to move the arm

  • Numbness or tingling in the shoulder area or down the arm

  • Swelling

  • Visible deformity of the upper arm

A shoulder dislocation can tear blood vessels and disrupt blow flow to the arm. You need professional and prompt medical care to avoid complications of reduced blood flow. Call 911 for immediate medical care or if you need emergency transport.

What causes shoulder dislocation?

A dislocated shoulder occurs when some sort of significant force pushes the humeral head out of the shoulder socket.

The most common causes of a dislocated shoulder are:

  • Being forcefully struck on the shoulder, such as during a motor vehicle collision

  • Falling on an outstretched arm

  • Injuries related to sports activities, such as being tackled in a football game or falling while skiing

What are the risk factors for shoulder dislocation?

While anyone can experience a shoulder dislocation, certain medical conditions and lifestyle activities can put you at higher risk for a subluxation. Risk factors for a dislocated shoulder include:

  • Age under 30

  • Male gender

  • Participating in contact sports or activities like rock climbing that expose you to falling

  • Previous shoulder dislocation, chronic shoulder instability, or previous injury of the shoulder’s soft tissues

  • Occupational exposure to falls

Reducing your risk of shoulder dislocation

You may be able to lower your risk by:

  • Avoiding falls

  • Exercising to strengthen muscles in the shoulder area

  • Using protective equipment when participating in contact sports or occupational activities that could expose you to shoulder trauma

  • Wearing your seatbelt when driving or riding in a car

If you have previously injured or dislocated your shoulder, talk with your doctor about exercises you can do to avoid a second dislocation.

How do you fix a dislocated shoulder?

You should never attempt to fix a dislocated shoulder yourself, as this can cause serious damage to the blood vessels and ligaments surrounding the joint. Instead, you should immobilize the joint in its current position and seek prompt medical attention.

For a simple dislocation, an orthopedic surgeon will first try to manually put the humeral head back into the socket. You may receive sedation for this procedure (called a reduction), which usually is performed in the emergency room. Most people experience instant pain relief after the joint is reduced.

If you experience shoulder fracture with dislocation, you may need surgery to repair the injuries. After treatment for a dislocated shoulder, recovery time can be significant. You will wear a sling for a few days to a few weeks, depending on the severity of the injury. Your doctor may prescribe pain medicine or suggest a course of over-the-counter pain relievers. Icing the joint can help relieve the discomfort. Eventually, your doctor may prescribe certain shoulder dislocation exercises to increase strength and flexibility in the joint. These exercises may help you avoid dislocating the shoulder a second time.

What are the potential complications of shoulder dislocation?

Besides being very painful, a dislocated shoulder can cause such complications as:

  • Chronic shoulder instability that makes you more likely to experience future dislocations

  • Damaged blood vessels or nerves around the shoulder joint that can disrupt blood flow or cause reduced sensation or movement in the arm

  • Torn muscles or ligaments that cause joint instability

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 22
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Dislocated Shoulder. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/dislocated-shoulder
  2. Shoulder Problems. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/shoulder-problems#tab-overview
  3. Dislocated Shoulder. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dislocated-shoulder/symptoms-causes/syc-20371715