Shoulder Dislocation and Subluxation: What's the Difference?

Shoulder Dislocation and Subluxation: What's the Difference?

There’s an old saying that goes: It’s close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades. And in some life situations, close is close enough. But when it comes to medical diagnoses, you want absolute precision and accuracy.

That’s what you get here at Orthopaedics of Atlanta and Aesthetic Institute. Dr. W. Joseph Absi and our team use the most advanced technology and the latest techniques to ensure you receive an accurate diagnosis and the most effective and efficient treatment possible. 

In the spirit of prioritizing pinpoint accuracy, Dr. Absi is taking a closer look at two commonly confused shoulder injuries — shoulder dislocation and subluxation — and putting a fine point on the differences. It may seem like splitting hairs, but Dr. Absi’s attention to these details is what makes him one of the most sought-after, board-certified orthopaedic surgeons in Atlanta, Georgia.

Understanding your shoulder anatomy

To help you understand the difference between a shoulder dislocation and a shoulder subluxation, it helps to go over a brief anatomy lesson.

In medical terms, your shoulder is called the glenohumeral joint. This is a ball-and-socket joint, which means that the top of your upper arm (humerus) has a ball-shaped end cap that fits into a C-shaped section (glenoid fossa) of your shoulder blade (scapula).

Unlike the ball and socket on the back of a pickup truck, your shoulder socket is much looser to allow for a wide range of motions, and it relies on a group of muscles and ligaments — your rotator cuff — to keep it in place. While this enables you to move your arm in any direction, it also leaves you susceptible to injury if you take a hard hit to the shoulder.

Shoulder subluxation

If you fall or get hit in the shoulder, the force can shift your joint out of alignment. Even though the two bony structures are still contacting one another, if one of them gets knocked slightly out of position, it’s called subluxation.

Shoulder subluxation commonly follows a rotator cuff injury because the weakened supporting structure can’t hold your bones in place properly. For example, if you tear a muscle or a ligament in your rotator cuff, your humerus can shift out of place while still remaining inside the curve of the glenoid fossa.

In short, a shoulder subluxation describes a condition that has compromised the mechanical integrity of your shoulder’s supporting structures.

Shoulder dislocation

A shoulder dislocation is more extreme than a shoulder subluxation. In this case, the ball and socket become completely separated. 

The most common type of shoulder dislocation occurs during a fall, when you instinctively use your hands to prevent your body from slamming into the ground. The force shoots through your arms and pops the ball end of your humerus clean out of the shallow socket. 

Shoulder dislocations often create significant soft tissue damage as well.

How to spot the difference between shoulder dislocation and subluxation

Since there’s a subtle difference between shoulder dislocation and shoulder subluxation injuries, it stands to reason that symptoms are hard to distinguish as well.

Both conditions cause pain, numbness and tingling, and immobility. 

The primary visual difference between the two conditions is that a shoulder dislocation often looks deformed — it’s common to see a squared-off appearance or a sharp angle — while a shoulder subluxation presents a more subtle bump at the top of your shoulder. 

The only way to know for sure which type of injury you’ve sustained is to come see Dr. Absi for diagnostic testing, such as digital X-rays, MRI, and other imaging.

Treating shoulder dislocations and subluxations

The right treatment for your injury depends on whether it’s a shoulder dislocation or a subluxation, as well as the extent of the damage. 

If the soft tissue damage is minimal, you may only require a period of rest followed by physical therapy. 

If you’ve damaged nerves and blood supply to the area, Dr. Absi lets you know the best course of treatment to restore them.

If you’ve dislocated your shoulder, Dr. Absi repositions your bones to the proper place in your joint — but don’t try this at home, regardless of what you see in the movies, as you can cause additional soft tissue damage.

In some cases, surgical intervention becomes necessary to restore the rotator cuff or the joint. If so, you’re in the best hands with Dr. Absi. He’s highly trained and experienced in the use of minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery, which reduces collateral tissue damage, bleeding, scarring, and recovery time.

Don’t live with shoulder pain — schedule an appointment with Dr. Absi to find out exactly what’s wrong with your shoulder so you can get on the road to recovery. Call or click to book your consultation today at our Smyrna, Georgia, office. 


We treat patients for sports injuries including shoulder, knee, joint pain, and and traumatic injuries to the musculoskeletal system, including trigger finger pain. We focus on sports medicine & joint replacements, to include shoulder, hip & knee replacements, along with Carpal Tunnel. Call us to book your appointment today.

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