Dislocated Shoulder or Elbow | Orthopaedics | Loyola Medicine

Dislocated Shoulder or Elbow

Overview and Facts about Dislocated Shoulder or Elbow

Shoulder dislocation happens when you pop your upper arm bone (humerus) out of the socket of the shoulder joint. This injury is most often anterior, meaning the shoulder pops forward. In rare cases, the shoulder can pop backward (posterior).

Elbow dislocation occurs when you force the bones in the elbow joint out of alignment. This injury occurs most frequently as the result of landing on an outstretched hand during a fall.

In addition to injury to the shoulder or elbow, dislocation can cause damage to the surrounding nerves, blood vessels, tendons and ligaments, and can even fracture other surrounding bones. It is important to seek immediate medical treatment when dislocation occurs, and to make sure you follow a thorough rehabilitation plan.

Causes and Risk Factors of Dislocated Shoulder or Elbow

Shoulder dislocation:

A strong or sudden blow to the shoulder is the most common cause of shoulder dislocation, as well as extreme rotation of the shoulder joint. Other causes include:

  • Fall onto an outstretched arm
  • Impact to the shoulder
  • Twisting the shoulder

You are at a higher risk of shoulder dislocation if you play contact sports such as football or hockey, or sports that are more likely to have falls, such as volleyball, gymnastics or downhill skiing. Falls in general or automobile accidents are also common causes of shoulder dislocation.

Elbow dislocation:

Falls onto an outstretched hand or automobile accidents are the most common causes of elbow dislocation. This is also a common injury in small children, occurring when adults pick them up by the arms or when they are holding onto an adult’s hand when falling or stepping off a higher surface (i.e., stairs or a curb). 

Symptoms of Dislocated Shoulder or Elbow

You will most likely feel the moment your shoulder or elbow pops out of its joint, and the affected arm will often look different, distorted or lower than the other arm.

Other symptoms include:

  • Sudden severe pain
  • Inability to move shoulder or elbow joint
  • Swelling and bruising that develops after the injury
  • Numbness, pins and needles feeling or discoloration (this may indicate nerve damage) 

Tests and Diagnosis of Dislocated Shoulder or Elbow

Seek medical attention immediately if you suspect a dislocated shoulder or elbow. Your doctor will inspect the joint for tenderness, swelling, pain or deformity. He/she may also order an X-ray to determine if any bones have been broken or any other damage to the joint. 

Treatment of Dislocated Shoulder or Elbow

When you dislocate your shoulder or elbow, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. You should also try to immobilize the joint by using a sling or holding the affected arm close to the body. You can also apply an ice pack to reduce swelling and help with pain.

Your doctor will likely order an X-ray before attempting reduction, or using gentle maneuvers to place the shoulder or elbow back into the joint. He/she may give you a mild anesthetic before reduction.

If your shoulder/elbow is dislocating on a regular basis or if there has been damage to the surrounding structures, your doctor may recommend surgery.

After treatment, you will need to immobilize the joint in a sling so the tissues can heal. You may also be given non-steroidal medications such as ibuprofen for the pain.

Rehabilitation involves strengthening the affected muscles to gain range of motion and prevent future dislocations.