Shoulder Dislocation: How It Happens and What to Do if it Happens to You

If Hollywood were to be believed, when you dislocate your shoulder, you grit your teeth and pop it back into place against a wall, suppressing your cries of agony. Well, that’s Hollywood and it most certainly isn’t what you should do when your shoulder joint dislocates.

Here at Orthopaedics of Atlanta and Aesthetic Institute, board-certified orthopedic surgeon Dr. W. Joseph Absi and our team have extensive experience helping patients with dislocated shoulders and we understand the best approaches to this painful problem.

Instead of relying on Hollywood for medical advice, we’ve pulled together some orthopedic rules of thumb to help restore this joint safely.

Shoulder anatomy 101

To better understand what happens when you dislocate your shoulder, it’s helpful to review the anatomy of these all-important joints. Your shoulders are shallow ball-and-sockets joints made up three bones:

At the top of your humerus is a ball, which fits neatly into a socket (medically known as a glenoid) in your shoulder blade. Holding these two bones together are a group of ligaments collectively known as your shoulder capsule. Also lending support are other connective tissues, such as tendons and muscles, that all work together to keep your shoulder stable and to provide range of motion.

Shoulder dislocation

When you dislocate your shoulder, it means that the head of your humerus comes out of the socket. There are two types of dislocation:

There are several ways in which a dislocation can occur. In most cases, the initial dislocation stems from trauma, such as a direct hit or fall that forces your upper arm out of the socket.

When this happens you can tear the surrounding ligaments quite badly, leaving them looser and/or weakened, even after you heal. If this happens, you may be prone to future dislocations thanks to ongoing shoulder instability.

Another cause of shoulder dislocations is repetitive use. For example, if you frequently engage in activities that rely on your shoulders, such as painting or sports like volleyball, you may overstress your shoulder capsule, leaving it vulnerable to instability and dislocation.

Signs of a dislocated shoulder

To determine whether your shoulder is dislocated, watch for these symptoms:

If you recognize any of these signs, it’s important that you take swift action.

What to do when you dislocate your shoulder

If you suspect you’ve dislocated your shoulder, your first steps are important. First, immobilize your shoulder with a sling or splint in its current position. Next, apply ice to reduce swelling. Third, call us right away.

A dislocated shoulder is a serious and painful problem and it’s one you don’t want to exacerbate by trying to remedy on your own. Trying to “pop” your shoulder back into place can often cause more damage to the connective tissues, blood vessels, and nerves in the area.

When you come see us, we first turn to advanced diagnostic imaging to determine the extent of the dislocation and then we perform a closed reduction, a technique in which we gently guide your bones back into position.

This early and correct intervention is also your best chance for avoiding ongoing problems with shoulder instability.

If you suspect you’ve dislocated your shoulder, please contact our office in Smyrna, Georgia, as quickly as possible so that you can get the care you need.

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