What Is a Dislocation?

A dislocation occurs when a bone slips out of a joint. For example, the top of your arm bone fits into a joint at your shoulder. When it slips or pops out of that joint, you have a dislocated shoulder. You can dislocate almost any joint 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.

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. After a joint dislocates, it’s more likely to dislocate again in the future.

Anyone can dislocate a joint if they fall or experience some other type of trauma. However, older persons 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 hasn’t been childproofed. Those who practice unsafe behavior during physical activities put themselves at higher risk for accidents such as dislocations.

In most scenarios, you’ll easily be able to see a dislocation. 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 or be deformed 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

It may be difficult to determine whether your bone is broken or a dislocation has occurred. You should go to an emergency room as quickly as possible.

Your doctor will examine the affected area. He will be checking circulation to the area, deformity, and whether the skin is broken. If your doctor believes that you have a broken bone or a dislocation, he will order an X-ray. On occasion, special imaging such as an MRI may be required. These imaging tools will enable your doctor to see exactly what’s going on in the joint or bone involved.

Your doctor’s choice of treatment will depend on which joint you dislocated. It may also depend on the severity of your dislocation. According to Johns Hopkins University, initial treatment for any dislocation involves RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. In some cases, the dislocated joint might go back into place naturally after this treatment.

If the joint doesn’t return to normal naturally, your doctor may use one of the following treatments:

  • manipulation or repositioning
  • immobilization
  • medication
  • rehabilitation


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


After your joint returns to its proper place, your doctor may ask you to wear a sling, splint, or cast 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 immobile will vary, depending on the joint and severity of the injury.


Most of your pain should go away after the joint returns to its proper place. However, your doctor may prescribe a pain reliever or a muscle relaxant if you’re still feeling pain.


You will need surgery only if the dislocation damaged your nerves or blood vessels, or if your doctor is unable to return your bones to their normal position. Surgery may also be necessary for those who often dislocate the same joints, such as their shoulders. To prevent redislocation, it may be necessary to reconstruct the joint and repair any damaged structures. On occasion, a joint has to be replaced, such as a hip replacement.


Rehabilitation begins after your doctor properly repositions or manipulates the joint into the correct position and removes the sling or splint (if you needed one). You and your doctor will devise a rehabilitation plan that works for you. The goal of rehabilitation is to gradually increase the joint’s strength and restore its range of motion. Remember, it’s important to go slowly so you don’t reinjure yourself before the recovery is complete.

You can prevent a dislocation if you practice safe behavior. 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 the floor.
  • Avoid use of throw rugs.

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’re 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.

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 or years and may require additional surgeries.

If your dislocation received prompt treatment, chances are that it won’t worsen into a permanent injury. However, it’s important to remember that the area will be weak and is more likely to dislocate in the future.

The healing time will also be longer if blood vessels or nerves were damaged in the dislocation. On occasion, the blood vessels that supply the bones are permanently damaged.

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