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Shoulder Dislocation


What is a shoulder dislocation?

A shoulder dislocation occurs when the top of your arm bone (humerus) moves out of the socket in your shoulder blade.

Shoulder Anatomy

What causes a shoulder dislocation?

  • A fall on an outstretched arm
  • A hard hit to the back of your arm
  • A hard pull on your arm
  • Loose tissues around your shoulder joint that allow the joint to move more than it should
  • Swinging your arm forcefully over your head
  • Strong, repeated shoulder muscle movements that can happen during a seizure or electric shock

What are the signs and symptoms of a shoulder dislocation?

  • Shoulder and arm pain that worsens with movement
  • A bump in front of or behind your injured shoulder
  • Different shapes for each shoulder
  • Redness and swelling in your injured shoulder
  • Muscle spasms (sudden muscle movements) in your injured shoulder
  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling in your injured shoulder and arm

How is a shoulder dislocation diagnosed?

Your caregiver will ask about your signs and symptoms. He will compare the shape of your shoulders. He may touch areas of your shoulder and arm to see if you have decreased feeling. He may also check your arm strength and movement. Tell your caregiver if you have had a shoulder dislocation in the past. You may also need the following:

  • X-ray: An x-ray is a picture taken of your shoulder to look at the bones in your shoulder and for damage to any other tissues.
  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your shoulder. You may be given a dye before the pictures are taken to help caregivers see the pictures better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.
  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your shoulder. An MRI may show bone placement and broken bones. Your caregiver will also look for tissue damage. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • Arthrogram: An arthrogram is an x-ray that is taken after dye is injected into your injured joint. This test is used to look at the bones and muscles in your shoulder joint. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.

How is a shoulder dislocation treated?

Treatment depends on how badly your shoulder is dislocated, and if there is damage to bone and nearby tissues. You may need any of the following:

  • Manual reduction: Caregivers use their hands to move your dislocated humerus back into place. Weights may also be used to help pull your humerus into place. You may need the following medicines before you receive this treatment:
    • Muscle relaxer: This is medicine to help the tight muscles in your shoulder relax.
    • Sedatives: These can help you stay calm and relaxed during manual reduction.
    • Anesthesia: This is given as a shot to numb your injured shoulder during manual reduction. You may also be given anesthesia to keep you asleep during your treatment.
  • Pain medicine: You may be given a prescription medicine to decrease pain. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take this medicine.
  • Sling, splint, or brace: You may need to wear a sling or splint after your shoulder dislocation is treated. Slings and splints limit your shoulder movement while supporting it. You may need to wear a shoulder brace to protect your shoulder from injury after you have been treated. Ask your caregiver for more information about slings, splints, and braces.

  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist teaches you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain.
  • Surgery: You may need surgery to repair damaged tissues around your shoulder joint. You may also need a bone graft to repair your shoulder. A bone graft is artificial bone used to replace your damaged bone. You may also need surgery if your shoulder dislocates often.

What can I do to care for my shoulder?

  • Ice: Ice helps decrease swelling and pain. Ice may also help prevent tissue damage. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel and place it on your shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed.
  • Rest: You may need to rest your injured shoulder and avoid activities that cause you pain. Rest helps your muscles and tissues heal. Follow your caregiver's directions about how long you should rest your shoulder.

What are the risks of a shoulder dislocation?

  • Manual reduction treatment may be painful. You may need manual reduction more than once to fix your shoulder. If you have surgery, you may have pain and stiffness in your shoulder. You may get an infection in your surgery site. Tissues, nerves, and blood vessels around your shoulder joint may be damaged during manual reduction or surgery. Even with treatment, your shoulder may dislocate again.
  • A dislocated shoulder may cause damage to nerves and blood vessels. Without treatment, the pain, weakness, and numbness in your injured shoulder and arm may not go away. Your arm and shoulder may not move as well as they did before your injury. Over time, the cartilage in your joint may break down, causing osteoarthritis. Cartilage is the tough tissue that covers the ends of your bones and joints. Osteoarthritis can lead to more pain in your arm and shoulder.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.
  • You have increased pain in your injured shoulder and arm even after you rest and take your medicine.
  • You have new weakness or numbness in your injured shoulder and arm.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Your injured shoulder and arm become pale or cold.
  • You cannot move your injured shoulder and arm.
  • You have increased redness or swelling in your injured shoulder.
  • Your shoulder becomes dislocated again.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.