Shoulder Dislocation: How It Happens + 5 Things To Do if You Suspect It

Sometimes, it does require surgery
Dislocated shoulder X-ray

If you ever suspect you have a dislocated shoulder, don’t try to put it back in yourself. If you’re fortunate enough to be somewhere with access to a trained professional, such as a physician or athletic trainer, they may attempt to relocate it for you. This is certainly an urgent situation and warrants a visit to the emergency department.

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“The biggest thing we want you to avoid is doing more damage to your shoulder by trying to fix it yourself,” says orthopaedic surgeon Salvatore Frangiamore, MD.

Who is at risk?

A significant injury causing shoulder dislocation is most likely to happen during a sports injury or a fall. It often occurs when your arm is outstretched and a sudden twisting or jerking motion occurs.

If you play football or participate in contact sports, you’re more susceptible. But it might happen during normal activities in your home — if you lose your balance and extend your arm to grab something to catch yourself, for instance.

“With traumatic injuries, the pain is often severe and there’s up to an 80% chance of recurrence in certain patient populations,” says Dr. Frangiamore.

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“Surgery may be necessary for recurrent dislocations or for young athletes who are at higher risk of re-injury,” he adds.

Are you double-jointed?

Dislocation can happen without a significant injury if you are very flexible and suffer from atraumatic shoulder instability.

This is especially common in younger people involved in sports requiring more repetitive overhead motion in the shoulder such as swimming, volleyball or tennis, Dr. Frangiamore says.

“The sport may not cause the instability, but it will often uncover it,” he adds.

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Those who are overly flexible (who may describe themselves as “double-jointed”) are also more prone to atraumatic shoulder instability.

In other words, your activities may prompt your shoulder to pop out of place or it may happen because of your body’s natural flexibility or looseness. It’s worth noting you don’t actually have double joints but a natural increased flexibility of soft tissue.

What should you do for a shoulder dislocation?

Dr. Frangiamore offers these steps for treating a dislocated shoulder:

  1. Immobilize the shoulder and ice it to help reduce swelling.
  2. Head to an emergency department for treatment as soon as you can. The doctor will attempt to relocate the shoulder without doing further damage.
  3. Wear a sling (this will most likely be recommended by the doctor) and rest your arm to allow the tissue to heal and the pain and swelling to subside.
  4. Limit motion to allow your shoulder to heal.
  5. Work with your doctor to develop a long-term plan to prevent future injuries. That may start with physical therapy to strengthen the shoulder, but it could include surgery also.

Through overuse or injury, nearly everyone experiences shoulder pain at some point in their lives. But immediate medical treatment after the injury and follow-up with your doctor can help prevent it from happening again.

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