The shoulder’s intrinsic mobility is offset by its limited stability. In other words, it can be easily dislocated. Now, you might be wondering: What does a dislocated shoulder feel like?
And, what are the signs of shoulder dislocation?
Well, one of its tell-tale signs is the intense pain that comes with a clearly deformed shoulder.
I’ll give you the inside scoop on all the other signs and symptoms in a bit. I’ll also cover the following topics:
- The kinds of shoulder dislocation
- Risk factors
- Possible complications
- What to do after a dislocation
- How your doctors will diagnose it
- Treatment methods
- Tips for injury prevention
Without further ado, here are more ways to tell if you have a dislocated shoulder joint:
How to tell if you dislocated your shoulder
A dislocated shoulder can have the following signs and symptoms:
- A sudden popping sound around the shoulder
- Arm numbness
- Difficulty moving the arm in any direction
- Intense muscle spasm
- Severe shoulder pain and swelling
- Shoulder tenderness
- Visibly deformed shoulder
Different types of shoulder dislocation
There are 2 types of shoulder dislocation you need to be aware of: anterior and posterior.
The types depend on the direction the upper arm bone (humeral head) goes into.
This happens when the head of the upper arm bone slides forward out of the shoulder socket.
The injury is usually the consequence of forceful extension, abduction, and external rotation of your arm. Like overreaching to catch a football that’s thrown behind you, for example.
Getting tackled from behind your arm could also dislocate your shoulder.
This is also the most common type of shoulder dislocation, amounting to 95% of cases reported. (2)
The humeral head slides backward out of the shoulder socket.
Seizures, electric shock, or getting hit in front of your shoulder can cause this.
Risk factors for shoulder dislocation are:
- Young, physically active male
- Repetitive overhead activities. Some common examples include going for a rebound and spiking a volleyball.
- Contact sports
- Hyperflexible joints
Complications after a dislocated shoulder
Complications can come from either of 2 things:
- The mechanism of your injury, or
- Neglecting your condition.
Here’s a list of possible complications (3):
Recurrent instability happens with about 36% of first-time anteriorly dislocated shoulders. (4)
An accompanying labral tear also increases the risk of this complication.
Bankart lesions, a type of labral tear, happens when there’s damage to the front part of your labrum. Your labrum is a type of cartilage in your shoulder.
This complication generally happens with shoulder dislocation. And, if it doesn’t heal properly, it can also put your joint at a higher risk for future reinjury.
Hill-Sachs lesion is a type of fracture that’s possible with anterior shoulder dislocation.
It happens when the outer back part of your humeral head crashes with your shoulder socket.
- Nerve damage – The axillary nerve can tear and lead to a flat appearance of shoulder musculature. This is the nerve that runs around the humeral head and innervates your deltoids.
- Kinesiophobia – Or, the fear of moving the injured arm as it may lead to another dislocation.
- Muscle and ligament Tears
- Trouble sleeping because of shoulder pain.
Related: The healthiest sleeping position for shoulder pain.
What you should do if you dislocated your shoulder
Before anything else, you should know that a shoulder dislocation has a high recurrence rate of 14% to 100%. That is if it’s left untreated. (1)
So, immediate medical attention is necessary, especially if it’s your first shoulder dislocation.
Call 911 or head to the emergency room to get your shoulder back into place.
Although, some people with recurrent shoulder instability have learned to pop their shoulders back in place.
This can be a good first-aid if no healthcare professional is present. But, as a precaution, it’s still best to get these injuries checked.
How is a dislocated shoulder diagnosed
Your doctor will need a detailed history leading up to your shoulder dislocation.
He/she will then check any deformities that can point to your type of dislocated shoulder. Your doctor might also test for possible nerve and blood vessel damage.
Should it be necessary, he/she might also order an X-ray to get a better look at the integrity of your shoulder joint. This also checks for any fractures.
For posterior dislocations due to seizures, a head CT and/or MRI might also be in order. This is to rule out possible brain tumors.
Treatment for shoulder dislocation
Relocating your shoulder and putting it in a sling will be the top priority after a dislocation. Afterward, your doctor may suggest you seek the following treatment options:
Non-surgical treatment options
Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs help decrease pain. Patients with seizures and epilepsy are also treated with Carbamazepine and Valproic acid.
A consult to see a physical therapist will help prevent future dislocations.
Your rehab session may include:
- Cryotherapy to decrease pain and swelling
- Shoulder and scapular muscle strengthening to promote stability
- Proprioception drills for better sense of your joint position
Some athletes may be fearful to return to their sport. This is especially true for overhead-dominant sports like volleyball and basketball.
Exercise therapy with psychological help improves recovery and decreases apprehension. (5)
Surgery for shoulder dislocation
This option is for patients who have recurring shoulder dislocations despite proper rehabilitation.
It may also be done to repair possible labral or ligamentous tears.
5 tips to prevent future dislocations
- Warm up before activities. This help the muscles react faster to quick changes of movement
- Start a strength program for your shoulder stabilizers. They may not be noticeable on a tank top, but they keep your shoulders where it needs to be.
- Increase your shoulder mobility. This can be done with a proper stretching routine.
- Don’t dismiss shoulder pain. This is your body’s way of telling you that something might be off.
- Recover between activities.
What’s the difference between shoulder dislocation, subluxation, and separation?
In a shoulder dislocation, the humeral head completely goes out of its socket. There is a noticeable gap between the articulating bones.
Shoulder subluxation is when the humeral head partially separates from its socket. There is still some contact between the surfaces of your joints but it has shifted out of alignment.
Shoulder separation involves a different set of joints. There is a complete tear of the ligaments between your collarbone and the end of your shoulder blade. It can cause your affected shoulder to move lower than the other side.
Can I move my arm after dislocating my shoulder?
In some instances, people with high pain tolerance are still able to have some arm motion even after a dislocation.
But, moving your dislocated arm is discouraged. Even small arm motions can cause further damage inside the joint.
Will bracing my shoulder help?
Shoulder braces are a cheap and effective way to provide support and enhance your sense of joint position. (6)
This can help boost an overhead athlete’s confidence in performing her sport.
A dislocated shoulder is an extremely painful injury. Thankfully, most of the time it can be treated nonoperatively. Seeking immediate medical attention can help you to quickly recover and avoid getting further complications.
- Polyzois, Ioannis et al. “Traumatic First Time Shoulder Dislocation: Surgery vs Non-Operative Treatment.” The archives of bone and joint surgery vol. 4,2 (2016): 104-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4852033/
- Cutts, Steven et al. “Anterior shoulder dislocation.” Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England vol. 91,1 (2009): 2-7. doi: 10.1308/003588409X359123
- Carrazzone, Oreste Lemos et al. “PREVALENCE OF LESIONS ASSOCIATED WITH TRAUMATIC RECURRENT SHOULDER DISLOCATION.” Revista brasileira de ortopedia vol. 46,3 281-7. 8 Dec. 2015, doi: 10.1016/S2255-4971(15)30196-8
- Olds, Margie K et al. “Who will redislocate his/her shoulder? Predicting recurrent instability following a first traumatic anterior shoulder dislocation.” BMJ open sport & exercise medicine vol. 5,1 e000447. 7 Mar. 2019, DOI: 10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000447
- Kitagawa, Takashi et al. “Impact of combination of therapeutic exercise and psychological intervention for a patient with first-time traumatic shoulder dislocation.” Journal of physical therapy science vol. 31,10 (2019): 850-854. doi: 10.1589/jpts.31.850
- Chu, Jennifer C et al. “The Effect of a Neoprene Shoulder Stabilizer on Active Joint-Reposition Sense in Subjects With Stable and Unstable Shoulders.” Journal of athletic training vol. 37,2 (2002): 141-145. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12937426/