Symptoms and Signs of Shoulder Dislocation

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 5/31/2022

Doctor's Notes on Shoulder Dislocation

If the shoulder is wrenched upward and backward, it may dislocate out of its socket. A shoulder dislocation is both painful and incapacitating. Common causes of shoulder dislocation include falls, collisions with other people or objects (such as during sports), car accidents, and overuse/repetitive strain (also commonly caused by some sports). Most shoulder dislocations occur at the lower front of the shoulder, because of the anatomy of the shoulder joint. 

Symptoms of shoulder dislocation typically include

  • severe pain at the shoulder joint.

Other symptoms of shoulder dislocation may include

  • great difficulty moving the arm even a little; when the shoulder is touched from the side, it feels mushy, as if the underlying bone is gone (usually the humeral head -- top of the arm bone -- is displaced below and toward the front);
  • physical deformity;
  • feeling as if the shoulder is loose;
  • hearing pops or clicks in the shoulder area;
  • numbness,
  • tingling, and
  • weakness in the affected upper arm; or swelling or bruising of the area.

What is the Treatment for Shoulder Dislocation?

Shoulder dislocations are a medical emergency and patients should see a doctor right away if they suspect a shoulder dislocation. 

The shoulder joint bones will need to be put back into joint (closed reduction). Pain medications and possibly sedatives will be given to help when the shoulder reduction is performed. If the shoulder cannot be reduced or if there is nerve damage or a displaced fracture involved in the shoulder dislocation, the patient may require surgery.

After reduction of the shoulder, the arm will be placed in a sling or a splint for 2-3 weeks. Pain medications and ice packs applied to the area every 4 hours for 2-3 days will help swelling and pain. 

Patients with shoulder dislocations are referred to an orthopedist for follow-up and may need to be referred for physical therapy. If the shoulder dislocation happens more than once, has signs of severe ligament damage, or is still unstable after therapy, the shoulder may require surgery to repair the supporting ligaments.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.