The shoulder is an amazingly mobile joint, allowing the arm to rotate over a range of degrees and directions. But this mobility also carries risk: The shoulder is the reason for half of all visits to the emergency room for joint dislocations. In most cases of dislocated shoulders, the humerus bone moves anteriorly (towards the front of the body) as opposed to posteriorly (towards the rear). The result can be nerve damage.
A dislocated shoulder should be treated as soon as possible, first by having the bone replaced in its socket. This will ease the pain. It’s important that the patient not try to reposition the dislocated joint without medical intervention. Self-treatment can result in further injury.
The symptoms of a dislocated shoulder include pain that increases when the patient attempts to move the shoulder or upper arm; a visible deformation such as a bump in the front or back of the joint; intense pain when the injury occurs and lingering tenderness around the shoulder and collarbone; possible bruising or swelling.
The diagnosis can distinguish between a dislocated shoulder joint and a so-called separated shoulder, a term that is used to describe a tear in the ligament connecting the collarbone to the shoulder blade.
In severe cases, a dislocated shoulder includes damage to tissues and nerves around the joint. When the shoulder bone is reset to its correct position, the patient will feel immediate relief but some pain will continue until the joint heals.
Treatment for a Dislocated Shoulder
When a patient appears in the clinic complaining of shoulder pain, the doctor will perform a physical exam and ask about the incident. Doctor may also order imaging tests such as x-rays, MRI or ultrasound. It’s necessary to determine the cause of the pain before a treatment plan can be designed.
Treatment may begin with conservative therapy, including resting the joint, applying ice to reduce pain and swelling, the use of a sling to immobilize the joint, pain medication and, eventually, physical therapy.
Patients whose symptoms don’t improve with conservative treatment may be candidates for shoulder surgery. In some cases, surgery is required to re-position the bones. Habitual dislocations may also need to be stabilized surgically.
To avoid future episodes, patients should stop any activity that causes shoulder pain. The medical staff can advise patients on stretching exercises to perform before a work-out, to help prevent injury. A dislocated shoulder needs time to heal, and the process cannot be rushed. While patients may be eager to return to a favorite sport or activity, it might be better to replace shoulder-stressing movements with other exercises that don’t strain the joint. Dislocated shoulders can take months to heal; only the doctor can say when a shoulder is ready for action again.