Dislocations

Written by Elly Dock | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is a Dislocation?

A dislocation occurs when the bones that are usually be connected at a joint separate. You can dislocate a variety of different joints in your body, including your knee, hip, ankle, or shoulder.

Since a dislocation means your bone is no longer where it should be, you should treat it as an emergency and seek medical attention as soon as possible. An untreated dislocation could cause damage to your ligaments, nerves, or blood vessels.

What Causes Dislocations?

Dislocations typically result when a joint experiences an unexpected or unbalanced impact. This might happen if you fall or experience a harsh hit to the affected area. Once a joint has been dislocated, it is more at risk for dislocations in the future.

Who Is at Risk for Dislocations?

Anyone can dislocate joint if he or she has a fall or suffers some other type of trauma. However, elderly people tend to have a higher risk, especially if they lack mobility or are less able to prevent falls.

Children can also be at a greater risk for dislocations if they are unsupervised or play in an area that has not been childproofed. Those who practice unsafe behavior during physical activities put themselves at higher risk for accidents, such as dislocations, as well.

If you dislocated a joint in the past, the affected area could be more vulnerable to that injury in the future.

Recognizing a Dislocation

In many scenarios, you will be able easily to see a dislocation when it has occurred. The area may be swollen or look bruised. You may notice that the area is red or discolored. It may also have a strange shape as a result of the dislocation.

Some of the other symptoms associated with dislocated joints include:

  • loss of motion
  • pain during movement
  • numbness around the area
  • tingling feeling

Diagnosing a Dislocation

It may be difficult to determine whether your bone is broken or just dislocated. You should arrange an exam with your doctor as soon as you can.

Your doctor may move the affected area around to check your range of motion. If your doctor believes that you have a broken bone, he or she may request an MRI or X-ray to be taken. These imaging tools will enable your doctor to see exactly what is going on in your joint.

Treating Dislocations

Your doctor’s choice of treatment will depend on the joint that you may have dislocated. It may also depend on how severe your dislocation is. According to Johns Hopkins University, initial treatment for any dislocation involves R.I.C.E.—Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. In some cases, the dislocated joint might go back into place naturally after this treatment (Johns Hopkins).

If the joint does not return to normal naturally, your doctor may use one of the following treatments:

  • manipulation or repositioning
  • immobilization
  • medication
  • rehabilitation

Manipulation

In this method, your doctor will manipulate or reposition the joint back into place. You will be given a sedative or anesthetic to remain comfortable and also to allow the muscles near your joint to relax, which eases the procedure.

Immobilization

Once your joint has returned to its proper place, your doctor may ask you to wear a sling or splint for several weeks. This will prevent the joint from moving and allow the area to fully heal. The length of time your joint needs to be immobilized will vary, depending on the location of the injury and how severe it is.

Medication

Most of your pain should go away once the joint is returned to its proper place. However, your doctor may prescribe a pain reliever or a muscle relaxant if you are still feeling pain.

Surgery

You will need surgery only if the dislocation has damaged your nerves or blood vessels, or if the doctor is unable to return your bones to the joint. Surgery may also be necessary for those who often dislocate the same joints, such as their shoulders.

Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation begins after the joint has been properly repositioned or manipulated into the correct position and the sling or splint has been removed (if you needed one). Your doctor will work with you to devise a rehabilitation plan that best works for you. The goal of rehabilitation is to gradually increase the joint’s strength and rebuild its range of motion. Remember, it’s important to go slowly, so you don’t reinjure yourself before the recovery is complete.

Typical Recovery Outcomes for Dislocations

Every dislocation has its own unique healing time. Most people experience a full recovery in several weeks. For some joints, such as hips, full recovery may take several months.

If the dislocation was treated as soon as it occurred, chances are that it will not worsen into a permanent injury. However, it is important to remember that the area will be weakened and is at a greater risk to become dislocated in the future.

The healing time will also be longer if blood vessels or nerves were damaged in the dislocation.

If the dislocation is severe or is not treated in time, there may be permanent problems such as persistent pain or the cell death of parts of bone around the joint.

Preventing Dislocations and Accidental Injury

Dislocations can be prevented if people practice safe behavior. Methods for preventing dislocations vary depending on the age you are focusing on. However, general tips to prevent dislocations include:

  • Use handrails when going up and down staircases.
  • Keep a first aid kit in the area.
  • Use nonskid mats in wet areas, such as bathrooms.
  • Move electrical cords off of the floors.

To prevent children from possible dislocations, consider practicing the following:

  • Teach children safe behaviors
  • Watch and supervise children as needed.
  • Ensure that your home is childproof and safe.
  • Put gates on stairways to prevent falls.

If you are an adult and want to protect yourself from dislocations, you should:

  • Wear protective gear or clothing when doing physical activities, such as sports.
  • Remove throw rugs from your floor, or replace them with nonskid rugs.
  • Avoid standing on unstable items, such as chairs.
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