A dislocated shoulder occurs when the top part of the upper arm bone partially or fully comes out of the socket. A dislocated shoulder is painful and results in temporary loss of mobility and function of the affected arm.

A person with a dislocated shoulder should seek medical attention as soon as possible so that a healthcare professional can put the joint back into place.

Joint reduction, or placing the joint back into its normal position, can significantly ease the severe pain associated with a dislocation. However, full healing may require the use of a sling, physical therapy, and, in more severe cases, surgical stabilization of the shoulder joint.

This article looks at the causes, risk factors, and symptoms of a dislocated shoulder. It also discusses possible treatment.

An X-ray of a dislocated shoulder.Share on Pinterest

A shoulder dislocation occurs when the top of the upper arm bone, the humerus, comes partially or fully out of the shoulder socket bone called the glenoid.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body and therefore the most commonly dislocated one.

The shoulder can dislocate forward, backward, or downward. Forward dislocations, also called anterior dislocations, account for about 97% of all cases.

An anterior dislocation usually occurs when the arm is out to the side and rotated backward, such as when throwing a ball, and then hit. As the bone exits the socket, it causes damage to the surrounding tissues that help stabilize the joint.

When a person dislocates their shoulder, they often experience severe pain and loss of mobility in the shoulder. Sometimes, a change in the shape of the shoulder is also noticeable.

A force placed on the shoulder joint when it is in a vulnerable position can result in a dislocated shoulder.

Possible causes include:

  • a fall
  • a car accident
  • being hit during a contact sport

Anyone can dislocate their shoulder. However, it is more common in certain groups of people, including:

  • younger people who participate in contact sports
  • older adults, particularly after a fall

Research shows that the younger a person is at the time of their first dislocation, the higher the likelihood of their shoulder dislocating again.

This is likely due to the fact that younger people participate in higher risk sports and activities. The more times that the shoulder dislocates, the more the tissues that stabilize the joint get stretched out.

In a 2016 review, researchers found that younger males are at a higher risk of recurrent dislocations. However, the review also states that there is a need for additional studies in order to best determine risk factors for recurrent or initial dislocations.

A fracture of the glenoid that sometimes occurs when the shoulder dislocates is also a risk factor for recurrent dislocations.

Once the shoulder dislocates for the first time, a person may take some steps to help prevent recurrent dislocation, including:

  • undergoing physical therapy
  • doing strengthening exercises
  • stretching the muscles around the shoulders
  • avoiding high risk sports and activity

People who experience a shoulder dislocation may report symptoms such as:

  • pain that comes on suddenly
  • a decrease in the shoulder range of motion
  • feeling the bone rolling out of the socket
  • a popping sensation in the shoulder
  • numbness or stinging in the arm
  • a change in the shape of the shoulder
  • bruising
  • muscle weakness
  • swelling around the shoulder

If a person suspects that they have dislocated their shoulder, they should seek emergency medical attention.

To put the shoulder back in place, a doctor will typically need an X-ray of the joint to determine the direction of the dislocation.

A person should always seek immediate medical attention if the affected arm or hand starts to turn blue or if the person is experiencing swelling, worsening pain, or both in the arm, shoulder, or hand.

In order to properly diagnose a dislocated shoulder, a doctor will likely start by asking about symptoms and medical history. They will then perform a physical examination.

In some cases, doctors may be able to determine whether the shoulder is dislocated based on the examination and symptoms.

However, they will usually obtain an X-ray image to help determine the direction of the dislocation and the maneuver needed to put the joint back in place correctly.

There are several techniques doctors use to perform a shoulder joint reduction. The exact method of placing the shoulder joint back in its normal position can vary slightly depending on the doctor’s experience and the direction of the dislocation.

Before a reduction, some doctors inject a local anesthetic into the joint to help reduce pain. Doctors will often choose intravenous sedation to allow the muscles surrounding the shoulder to relax.

Following the reduction, a doctor will obtain new X-rays to ensure that the joint is in the right position. After a person wears a sling for a period of time, their doctor will often suggest a physical therapy to help regain the range of motion and strengthen the muscles around the shoulder.

Additionally, the doctor may recommend a follow-up appointment with an orthopedic specialist.

In some instances, a person may need surgery to stabilize the joint. Most first-time dislocations do not require surgery. However, it is necessary to operate on a shoulder that continues to dislocate, to prevent further dislocations and minimize the risk of other long-term problems, such as degenerative arthritis.

In most cases, a shoulder dislocation requires medical attention to help reduce the risk of recurrence and minimize the likelihood of complications.

While awaiting medical treatment, a person may take some steps to ease symptoms. For example, they can use the method known as RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. This will help protect the joint and prevent swelling.

They may also use over-the-counter medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, to help ease inflammation and pain.

However, it is still best to seek emergency medical care.

The shoulder joint is the most frequently dislocated joint in the body. A force placed on the shoulder joint when it is in a vulnerable position, such as when a person throws a ball, can result in a dislocated shoulder.

The dislocation is painful and can temporarily cause limited mobility. If a person does not receive proper treatment, recurrent dislocations and potential long-term problems, such as arthritis, may arise.

If a person suspects that they have dislocated their shoulder, they should seek emergency medical attention.