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Provider evaluating patient's shoulder

Shoulder dislocation occurs when the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) has come out of the socket (glenoid). Shoulder dislocations can be partial (a subluxation), in which the humerus is only partially out of the socket. More severe cases are called complete shoulder dislocations, in which the head of the humerus has moved all the way out of the socket. Shoulder dislocation is usually accompanied by other problems, such as tears of the ligaments or labrum within the shoulder joint.

Shoulder dislocation can happen to anyone and can be caused by trauma to the shoulder through sports injuries, falls or other accidents in which the shoulder is forced out of place. Shoulder dislocation can also occur as a result of overuse from repetitive activities or from previous dislocations that loosen connective tissues that keep the humerus in place within the socket.

Symptoms of Shoulder Dislocation

If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should seek immediate treatment at the emergency department or urgent care facility:

  • Intense shoulder pain, especially at the joint
  • Deformity or the shoulder is visibly out of place
  • Inability to move the shoulder or shoulder weakness
  • Numbness and tingling

If you are diagnosed with a shoulder dislocation, doctors will work to relocate your shoulder joint. Follow-up with one of our shoulder specialists is then recommended.

Diagnosing a Dislocated Shoulder

To diagnose a shoulder dislocation, one of our orthopaedic specialists will discuss any past injuries, evaluate your symptoms, examine your shoulder and arm, and take a full medical history.

You will likely require further imaging tests to see if there are other accompanying fractures or soft tissue injuries. These imaging tests include:

  • X-ray
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • Musculoskeletal ultrasound

Our musculoskeletal radiologists, who are experts in interpreting advanced imaging technology, carefully review scans. The highly advanced imaging technology available at Penn leads to a better diagnosis and optimal treatment plans. Treatment options may include a combination of conservative therapies. If your shoulder dislocation is severe and accompanied by other types of shoulder injuries, you may require surgery.

Treatment Options for a Dislocated Shoulder

For many shoulder dislocations, orthopaedic specialists/surgeons will use conservative methods to treat symptoms after placing the humerus back into the shoulder socket. Your doctor may recommend the following noninvasive treatments to reduce pain and swelling and restore function:

  • Activity modification and/or immobilization with a sling
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Icing or applying heat to the shoulder joint
  • Strengthening exercises and/or physical therapy

If your shoulder dislocation is very severe and is accompanied by torn ligaments and tendons, surgery may be required. We offer the latest surgical techniques for the treatment of shoulder dislocation and soft tissue injuries, including minimally invasive approaches that allow for faster recovery times and less shoulder pain. Your physician will discuss your surgical options with you.

Surgery for Shoulder Dislocation

Shoulder dislocation surgery repairs the damage that occurred when the shoulder came out of the socket. This can include repairing torn ligaments and tendons or repairing other bone fractures that may have occurred during the injury.

Our orthopaedic specialists/surgeons are highly experienced in performing complex surgical treatments for shoulder injuries, including tendon and ligament reconstruction and/or transfers. Our orthopaedic surgeons perform very high numbers of this specialized surgical procedure, which works to restore function and shoulder strength and reduce shoulder pain.

Surgeries we perform for shoulder dislocation include:

Advanced Arthroscopic Techniques

Orthopaedic surgeons often use minimally invasive arthroscopic techniques to repair soft tissues and fractures that occur as a result of shoulder dislocation. Your surgeon will make a small incision in your shoulder area and insert a very thin tube called an arthroscope with a tiny light and camera at the end. This allows surgeons to see the structures within the shoulder joint and surrounding area, then repair and reconstruct ligaments and tendons and other bone fractures. Arthroscopic surgical techniques allow for quicker recovery times and less pain.

Ligament and Tendon Reconstruction and Repair

Torn tendons and ligaments often accompany a dislocated shoulder. Tendon and ligament reconstruction may be necessary to repair the damage. Using advanced arthroscopic techniques, orthopaedic surgeons perform tendon and ligament reconstruction and/or transfer to improve function and reduce shoulder instability. Strengthening and repairing the shoulder tendons and ligaments reduces the risk of future shoulder dislocations.

Bone Transfer and Grafting

In certain situations following a shoulder dislocation, the bone of the shoulder socket (glenoid) or ball (humeral head) may be damaged. In order to stabilize the shoulder and prevent further dislocation, a piece of bone from elsewhere in the shoulder or body may need to be transferred to the glenoid or humeral head.

This is often performed in conjunction with tendon and ligament reconstruction, and it may be performed arthroscopically or through an incision on your shoulder. Our orthopaedic surgeons are experienced in these surgical techniques and will discuss the best treatment option with you to improve function and reduce shoulder instability.

Shoulder Dislocation Surgery Recovery

After shoulder dislocation surgery, your arm will be placed in a sling for approximately four to six weeks as you heal. Your doctor will immediately begin your pain management program and, as soon as you are ready, physical rehabilitation to restore strength and mobility.

Personalized Rehabilitation Program for Shoulder Dislocation

Recovering from shoulder dislocation surgery can take up to several months, depending on the type of surgery you had and how quickly you heal. Your orthopaedic team will create a rehabilitation and recovery program specific to your condition.

Penn physical therapists, orthopaedic specialists and pain management specialists work together to develop a customized rehabilitation plan that addresses your unique recovery needs and recovery goals. Our rehabilitation programs offer comprehensive care for every stage of recovery and for as long as you need, until maximum function and mobility has been restored.

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