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Pop Goes the Shoulder—Now What?

Dislocated shoulder
 If you are worried you have a shoulder dislocation, don't panic, but do get specialized care right away.

"The longer you wait to have the dislocated shoulder put back in place, the harder it is to do," says Julia Rawlings, MD, a pediatric orthopaedic physician at the University of Utah Orthopaedic Center. "With time, the tissues around the joint swell and the muscles spasm. Depending upon the facility, the length of time the shoulder has been dislocated, and the age of the patient, medication may be needed to help reduce the shoulder."

A sling, handkerchief, or any makeshift support can be used to stabilize the arm to provide support and decrease pain as you make your way to the doctor's office of hospital.

What causes a dislocated shoulder?

The vast majority of shoulder dislocations are the results of accidents, falls or sports activities such as:

  • Football
  • Hockey
  • Rock climbing
  • Snowboarding

Shoulder dislocations are most common in teenagers and young adults. Shoulder dislocations in children and infants are extremely rare.

Signs and sounds of dislocation

Patients often know when a dislocation happens because they feel the shoulder pop out of joint. There may be an audible pop as well. The shoulder is very painful when it is dislocated, and there is significant relief when the shoulder is put back into place.

Someone with a dislocated shoulder instinctively holds their injured arm tucked in close, supported by the other arm to minimize movement and pain. There is usually an obvious change in deformity to the shoulder as well. It is helpful to compare the injured side to the uninjured side to see if they look different.

Partially dislocated shoulder symptoms

A different problem is shoulder instability, also called shoulder subluxation. The shoulder feels like it's loose, but is not coming all the way out.

Two activities where participants seem to be prone to shoulder instability are swimming and dancing. This may be that people that are flexible thrive in these activities. Increased flexibility can make you more prone to joint instability.

For shoulder instability, Rawlings advises that the best treatment to start with is physical therapy. Generally, surgery is not recommended for shoulder instability.

Dislocated shoulder treatments

The bones of the shoulder joint are surrounded by supportive ligaments and tendons. These can be damaged when the shoulder is dislocated. Once the initial emergency is addressed and the shoulder is back in the socket, the injury will be treated with a supportive sling for several days.

People who have dislocated the shoulder should follow up with an orthopedic specialist. Rawlings cautions, "A patient may need surgery to address the damaged tissues after a shoulder dislocation. Important factors to decide whether or not a patient needs surgery include the age of the patient and how active they are. Some patients may be able to start with physical therapy to heal the injury."

For a true shoulder dislocation, get same-day treatment as soon as possible. If you or your kids are physically active, plan ahead. Know your nearest urgent care, emergency department, and orthopedic specialist before you hear the pop.

Dislocated shoulder recovery

Recovery can take time. According to Rawlings, how long it takes can vary. "It can take weeks to months to recover from a shoulder dislocation depending on the amount of damage that was done in the shoulder. Recovery after surgery can take up to a year."