Shoulder Dislocation, Separation

The shoulder joint is where each of your upper arm bones (the clavicle and humerus) connects to the scapula or shoulder blade. The joint has a ball-and-socket shape and provides you with the widest range of movement of any joint in the body. A shoulder dislocation is an injury that knocks the upper arm bone, or humerus, out of the shoulder socket or separates the clavicle from its attachment to the scapula. Shoulder dislocations are surprisingly common; they make up almost half of the dislocations treated each year in emergency rooms. At-risk groups include those most prone to athletic or physical injury.

With appropriate medical care, the majority of individuals suffering from this condition regain full use of the joint. The healthcare providers at Baptist Health can help you put a dislocated shoulder back in its proper place.

What Are the Symptoms of a Shoulder Dislocation?

Symptoms of a dislocated shoulder include:

  • Pain, possibly intense
  • Immobility of the joint and arm
  • Inflammation
  • Bruising
  • Numbing or weakness
  • An outward or inward appearance of shoulder deformity or damage

If you have reason to believe your shoulder is dislocated – an extreme pain and visible deformity are very good clues – seek medical help. In the meantime, attempt to stabilize your arm and shoulder close to your body and apply ice. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help control discomfort.

What Causes Shoulder Dislocations?

The predominant cause of shoulder dislocations is injury. Any kind of sharp blow to the shoulder joint runs the risk of separating the humerus, clavicle, and scapula or forcing them out of alignment. This might result from:

  • Falling
  • Athletic injury
  • Other forms of trauma, such as electrical shocks and auto accidents

Your shoulder joint’s expansive mobility makes possible several different types of dislocations, based on the new position of the upper arm bone relative to its usual spot:

  • Anterior dislocation: In an anterior dislocation, the ball of the humerus is pushed forward from the scapula socket, toward the front of the body. Most dislocations occur in this direction. 
  • Posterior dislocation: The humerus is forced behind the scapula socket, toward the back of the body, in a posterior dislocation. Dislocations of this type are unusual.
  • Inferior dislocation: Inferior dislocations occur when the upper arm bone is pushed down and away from the scapula socket. This is the most serious form of dislocation and also the least common.
  • Shoulder separation: A separation of the shoulder occurs between the clavicle and the scapula.  When falling or being hit directly, you may cause the two bones to separate at the joint. There are different degrees of separation and is dependent on the damage done to the ligaments that hold the joint together.  Grade I is the least severe, followed by Grade II, and lastly Grade III being the most severe.

Risk Factors for a Shoulder Dislocation

Shoulder dislocations are most likely in groups that are physically active or have high rates of athletic engagement. Teenage and twenty something males have the greatest risk for injuries of this kind.

How Do I Prevent a Shoulder Dislocation?

Preventing a dislocated shoulder comes down to preventing injury – or protecting yourself when an injury occurs:

  • Wear appropriate pads and other gear when participating in sports
  • Avoid falls and the conditions that cause them
  • Build muscle and joint strength through healthy diet and exercise

How Are Shoulder Dislocations Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of a shoulder dislocation typically involves:

  • Documentation of your health and medical history
  • A write up of your symptoms
  • A physical examination of your shoulder joint, with an eye to deformities, swelling, and/or sources of pain
  • An X-ray of your shoulder joint to confirm misalignment of the upper arm and shoulder bones

How Are Shoulder Dislocations Treated?

Treatment of a shoulder dislocation involves the following steps:

  • Shoulder reduction: Shoulder reduction is the process by which physicians maneuver the ball-and-socket joint back together. There are a variety of non-surgical techniques available for this. Reductions can be unpleasant, so anesthesia and muscle relaxants are sometimes required. The intense pain of a shoulder dislocation usually subsides when proper alignment is restored. In rare cases, shoulder reduction requires surgery.
  • Immobilization: Your physician may immobilize your shoulder before or after reduction, using a sling or splint. This speeds the healing process by allowing the shoulder to rest.
  • Pain killers and muscle relaxants: Prescription medications can help control discomfort while your shoulder is undergoing treatment.
  • Rehabilitation: Once your joint is mobile again, you’ll undergo physical therapy to regain strength, stability, and range of motion in your injured shoulder. You’ll begin with low-intensity exercises to improve muscle tone and move on to weight training as normal motion is restored.


There are several potential complications stemming from shoulder dislocations, especially in severe cases:

  • Muscle, tendon, and ligament tears in the rotator cuff and other connective tissues of the upper body
  • Damage to nerves and blood vessels in the injury’s vicinity
  • Shoulder instability, which can lead to repeat dislocations from lesser causes in the future

Despite these complications, modern medicine has a strong track record when it comes to treating shoulder dislocations. Most individual sufferers find that they recover from this type of injury in a period of 12 to 16 weeks.

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