Symptoms of a dislocated shoulder

An unexplained pain in your shoulder can mean many things, including dislocation. In some cases, identifying a dislocated shoulder is as easy as looking in the mirror. The affected area may be visibly disfigured with an unexplained lump or bulge.

In most cases, though, other symptoms will indicate dislocation. In addition to swelling and severe pain, a dislocated shoulder can cause muscle spasms. These uncontrollable movements can worsen your pain. The pain may also move up and down your arm, starting at your shoulder and moving up toward your neck.

When to seek medical attention

If your shoulder has dislocated from the joint, it’s important that you see your doctor right away to prevent further pain and injury.

As you wait to see your doctor, don’t move your shoulder or try to push it back into place. If you try to push the shoulder back into the joint on your own, you risk damaging your shoulder and joint, as well as the nerves, ligaments, blood vessels, and muscles in that area.

Instead, try to splint or sling your shoulder in place to keep it from moving until you can see a doctor. Icing the area can help reduce pain and swelling. Ice may also help control any internal bleeding or buildup of fluids around the joint.

How a dislocated shoulder is diagnosed

At your appointment, your doctor will ask about:

  • how you injured your shoulder
  • how long your shoulder has been hurting
  • what other symptoms you’ve experienced
  • if this ever happened before

Knowing exactly how you dislocated your shoulder — whether it was from a fall, sport injury, or some other type of accident — can help your doctor better assess your injury and treat your symptoms.

Your doctor will also observe how well you can move your shoulder and check to see if you feel any difference in pain or numbness as you move it. He will check your pulse to make certain there is no associated injury to an artery. Your doctor will also assess for any nerve injury.

In most cases, your doctor may take an X-ray to get a better idea of your injury. An X-ray will show any additional injury to the shoulder joint or any broken bones, which are not uncommon with dislocations.

Treatment options

After your doctor has a clear understanding of your injury, your treatment will begin. To start, your doctor will try a closed reduction on your shoulder.

Closed reduction

This means your doctor will push your shoulder back into your joint. You doctor may give you a mild sedative or a muscle relaxer beforehand to help reduce any discomfort. An X-ray will be performed after the reduction to confirm that the shoulder is the proper position.

As soon as your shoulder is lodged back into your joint, your pain should subside.

Immobilization

Once your shoulder has been reset, your doctor may use a splint or sling to keep your shoulder from moving as it heals. Your doctor will advise you on how long to keep the shoulder stable. Depending on your injury, it may be anywhere from a few days to three weeks.

Medication

As you continue to heal and regain strength in your shoulder, you may need medication to help with the pain. Your doctor may suggest ibuprofen (Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). You can also apply an ice pack to help with the pain and swelling.

If your doctor thinks you need something stronger, they will recommend prescription-strength ibuprofen or acetaminophen, which you can get from a pharmacist. They may also prescribe hydrocodone or tramadol.

Surgery

In severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary. This approach is a last resort and is only used if a closed reduction has failed or if there is extensive damage to the surrounding blood vessels and muscles. On rare occasions, a dislocation can have an associated vascular injury, either to a major vein or artery. This can require urgent surgery. Surgery on the capsule or other soft tissues may be necessary, but usually at a later date.

Rehabilitation

Physical rehabilitation can help you regain your strength and improve your range of motion. Rehab generally includes supervised or guided exercise at a physical therapy center. Your doctor will recommend a physical therapist and advise you on your next steps.

The type and duration of your rehab will depend on the extent of your injury. It could take a few appointments per week for a month or longer.

Your physical therapist may also give you exercises for you to do at home. There may be certain positions you need to avoid to prevent another dislocation, or they may recommend certain exercises based on the type of dislocation you had. It’s important to do them regularly and follow any instructions the therapist gives.

You shouldn’t participate in sports or any strenuous activity until your doctor thinks it’s safe enough to do so. Engaging in these activities before you are cleared by your doctor can damage your shoulder even more.

Home care

You can ice your shoulder with ice or cold packs to help with the pain and inflammation. Apply a cold compress to your shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes at a time every couple of hours for the first 2 days.

You can also try a hot pack on the shoulder. The heat will help relax your muscles. You can try this method for 20 minutes at a time as you feel the need.

Outlook

It can take anywhere from 12 to 16 weeks to completely recover from a dislocated shoulder.

After two weeks, you should be able to return most activities of daily living. However, you should follow your physician’s specific recommendation.

If your goal is to return to sports, gardening, or other activities that include heavy lifting, your doctor’s guidance is even more crucial. Participating in these activities too soon can further damage your shoulder and may prevent you from these activities in the future.

In most cases, it can take anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months before you can participate in strenuous activity again. Depending on your job, this may mean taking time off work or temporarily shifting to a new role.

Talk to your doctor about the options available to you. With proper care, your dislocated shoulder will heal properly and you’ll be able to resume your day-to-day activity before you know it.

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