Pop! It’s the sound you hear just before someone makes a toast. It can be a startling noise if you’re holding a balloon. But if you hear “pop” and it’s a body part, well, that’s not good at all.
One of the most common pop sounds for active people is a dislocated shoulder. Your shoulder is one of the largest and most powerful joints in your body, but this also makes it more prone to instability. The ball-and-socket joint is responsible for moving and rotating the upper arm, reaching behind you and holding weight overhead. A dislocation occurs when the ball is out of the socket.
If you heard a pop and are worried you have a shoulder dislocation, don’t panic—but also don’t try to put it back in yourself. Seek care from a trained medical professional to put it back in place.
“If it’s not put back in place properly, you can risk further damage to the joint, including fractures, ligament and tendon tears and even neurovascular injury,” said Samuel Harmsen, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and shoulder specialist with TOCA at Banner Health in Arizona. “The direction of the dislocation, associated injuries and appropriate reposition techniques are all important to understand in order to successfully relocate the shoulder without causing further damage.”
Read on to learn more about what causes a dislocated shoulder, how it’s treated and what to expect regarding your recovery.
What causes a dislocated shoulder?
Shoulder dislocations often occur as a result of sports injuries, falls and traumatic incidents like a car crash. Shoulder dislocation is seen in contact sports like football and rugby and in sports where falls are common such as skiing, mountain biking and gymnastics.
“Dislocations are often due to a combination of excessive force and rotation,” Dr. Harmsen said. “The shoulder can dislocate in a forward, backward and downward direction, depending on the position of the arm and the direction of the force applied.”
Sounds and signs of a dislocated shoulder
Besides the audible “pop” sensation and sound, shoulder dislocations can be very painful. You may also have the following symptoms:
- Inability to move the shoulder joint
- Inability to bear weight on the injured arm
- Visible deformity of the shoulder joint
- Swelling and bruising
- Numbness and tingling in the arm
Another problem: A partially dislocated shoulder
A different problem is shoulder instability called subluxation. This occurs when there is more than normal movement of the ball of the joint across the socket but not enough that it dislocates.
“Typically, there is not as much damage to the joint as with a dislocated shoulder, but both can put you at an increased risk for shoulder instability in the future,” Dr. Harmsen said.
Treating dislocated shoulders
Shoulder dislocations are often treated conservatively. Your provider or orthopedic specialist will obtain imaging and examine your shoulder to help better understand the dislocation and any associated injuries related to it.
“Often, simple dislocations can be associated with minimal injury to the shoulder and can be successfully treated with conservative management,” Dr. Harmsen said. “However, if there is further damage, you may develop recurrent instability and dislocations of your shoulder, which can lead to further damage, pain, and even early development of arthritis.”
If you have damage to your bones or tendons, surgery may be needed to optimize your outcome.
How long does it take for a dislocated shoulder to recover?
Most simple dislocations can improve within two to four weeks, however, going back to normal activities too quickly can make it more likely to dislocate again. If you underwent surgery, recovery could take three to six months, depending on the procedure performed and your desired activities.
“Though you will always have an increased risk for instability of the shoulder, most patients can do quite well and are able to return to their full level of activity once recovered,” Dr. Harmsen said.
What should I do if my shoulder is dislocated?
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, it’s really important to seek immediate care if you’ve dislocated your shoulder.
“If the shoulder remains dislocated for a prolonged period of time, it can further damage the shoulder, making the ultimate outcome of treatment less predictable and more complicated,” Dr. Harmsen said.
If you find yourself with a dislocated shoulder, Dr. Harmsen shared these steps:
- Immobilize your shoulder. Use a handkerchief or any makeshift support to stabilize your arm until you get to the hospital or urgent care. You can ice it to reduce swelling.
- Seek medical care. Know where your nearest urgent care and emergency department are located. A health care provider will attempt to relocate the shoulder without doing further damage.
- Rest and recover. Limit motion to allow your shoulder to heal.
- Develop a long-term plan to prevent future injuries. Your provider or an orthopedic specialist may first recommend physical therapy to strengthen the shoulder or could recommend surgery.