Talking With Your Doctor About Dislocated Shoulder Treatments

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Doctor talking to patient in doctor's office

Your shoulder is the body’s most flexible joint and enables the arm to have a wide range of motion. The shoulder is also the most commonly dislocated major joint. This means that the ball of the upper arm bone—or humerus—has moved out of its normal place in the shoulder socket. The shoulder can dislocate forward, backward or downward.


Symptoms of a dislocated shoulder include:

Your doctor will tailor your treatment plan based on the type of shoulder dislocation and your recovery goals. Individualized care starts with a conversation. Here are topics to bring up with your doctor that will help him or her decide the best course of treatment—for you.

Describe Your Injury and Symptoms 

Your doctor will want to know how you dislocated your shoulder. For example, did it occur while playing sports? Did you fall on the shoulder? Was there a hard blow to the shoulder? Your doctor will also want to know about any history of shoulder problems, including shoulder separation or prior dislocations. This information can tell your doctor a lot about the type of shoulder dislocation you have and how well it will heal. 

Your doctor will also want to know about your symptoms. Try to describe them in detail. If you’re having pain, describe how severe it is. Tell your doctor how hard it is to move your shoulder and arm on the affected side. You should also pay attention to any numbness or pins-and-needles feelings in the arm or hand.

After examining your shoulder, your doctor will likely order imaging tests. An X-ray is the most common test, but your doctor may also order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). An MRI is useful in finding injuries that can occur with a dislocated shoulder, such as soft tissue damage. Electromyography (EMG) is another test you may have. It evaluates nerve damage caused by a shoulder dislocation.

Explore Your Treatment Options

Treatment of your dislocated shoulder begins with moving the shoulder back into place. This does not involve cutting or surgery. The procedure is called a closed reduction. You will have pain medications and a sedative to keep you relaxed and comfortable as the doctor gently repositions your shoulder. 

After a closed reduction, you will need to rest, apply ice, and wear a sling or special splint to immobilize your shoulder. You will likely have physical therapy to strengthen your shoulder and regain function. The length and type of immobilization and physical therapy will vary depending on the type of dislocation and shoulder damage you have. Sometimes surgery is necessary if your shoulder is weak or the dislocation occurs more than once.

Ask your doctor about the type of physical therapy you will have and if shoulder surgery is right for you. Ask how long it may take for symptoms to subside and when you can return to activities. Your doctor may recommend another set of X-rays or imaging tests as you heal. Working with your doctor on your care plan can help you feel more in control of your condition and anticipate a return to health.  

Talk About What to Expect After Recovery

Ask your doctor or physical therapist what you can expect after recovery. Discuss all your activities, especially sports and physical work, and ask about the ability to return to them safely.

If you had a mild or first-time shoulder dislocation, it is likely that you will regain normal or near-normal use of the shoulder. In more severe or repeat cases, shoulder function may never fully return to pre-injury levels. Chronic conditions, such as arthritis, can sometimes develop after a shoulder dislocation. You may want to consider surgery to improve long-term function. Knowing what to expect may help you set realistic long-term expectations.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Aug 16

  1. Dislocated shoulder. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00035.

  2. Shoulder problems. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Shoulder_Problems/.

  3. Shoulder surgery. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00066.

  4. Shoulder trauma (fractures and dislocations). American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00394.

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