Shoulder Dislocation


You are playing a pickup game basketball with friends when you jump up to grab a rebound. Someone grabs your arm and pulls it back to block and you feel your shoulder slip out of place.  Suddenly you have severe pain and can’t move your shoulder. The game stops. One of your buddies tells you he thinks you have dislocated your shoulder. You go to the emergency room where a doctor gives you some medications that help you relax and then she pulls on the shoulder and places it back in. She places your arm in a sling and tells you to see an orthopaedic surgeon. This is just one of many scenarios that can cause a shoulder to dislocate.

How shoulder dislocation happens

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. This allows us to place our hand in a nearly infinite number of positions. The socket, called the glenoid is shallow and much smaller than the ball, called the humerus. Because the socket is so shallow the shoulder can slide out of the front, bottom or back of the joint. It can also partially slide out and slide back in, called a subluxation.

What you should do if you’ve dislocated your shoulder

A shoulder dislocation is very painful and you will require medical help right away. When it occurs it is nearly impossible to move the arm. The shoulder may look deformed compared to the other shoulder. Sometimes the hand or arm may feel numb. Most physicians’ offices are not equipped to manage a dislocated shoulder. Secure the arm at your side.  You may do this with a sling if you have one, or gently wrap a belt or sheet around you or just support your arm with your other hand. You should then have someone take you to an emergency room or urgent care facility. As I described in the scenario above, they will try to put the shoulder back then put the arm in a sling and tell you to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon.

While you are waiting to see an orthopedic surgeon you should apply an ice pack or frozen vegetables wrapped in a thin towel or t-shirt to the shoulder for no more than 20 minutes at a time every couple of hours while awake. After 2 – 3 days, a hot pack or heating pad may feel better to loosen up tight muscles. Stay in your sling even at night or whenever you sleep. You may use over the counter pain medications like aspirin, other anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Take them as directed on the bottle for only as long as you need for pain. Don’t forget to remove the sling daily to move the elbow, wrist and hand to prevent them from getting too stiff. Keep the elbow at your side at all times and this will lessen the likelihood of the shoulder dislocating again.

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