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Understanding shoulder separation

This injury usually heals within three months without surgery.

A shoulder separation isn't actually a problem with the shoulder joint.

In reality, it involves the acromioclavicular (AC) joint—the part of the body where the collarbone meets the top of the shoulder blade. Separation occurs when the ligaments that surround and support the AC joint stretch or tear. As a result, the collarbone can separate from the shoulder blade and slip out of place.

How it happens

Falling directly on the shoulder is the most common cause of shoulder separation, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. You're also vulnerable if you fall on an outstretched hand, suffer any blow to your shoulder or lift heavy objects.

Signs and symptoms of a separated shoulder include:

  • Pain or tenderness near the shoulder end of the collarbone.
  • A sensation of something sticking up.
  • A bump or bulge on the top of the shoulder. This can form when the collarbone and shoulder blade separate.

If you think you've separated your shoulder, call your doctor right away, especially if lifting your injured arm with your other arm eases the pain, advises the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Treatment

Doctors typically treat separated shoulders conservatively, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). Consequently, if a physical exam or x-ray confirms that your shoulder is separated, your doctor may advise treatments such as:

  • Rest. You may need to temporarily immobilize your arm in a sling or another type of support.
  • Ice. Putting an ice pack wrapped in cloth on the shoulder soon after injury can ease pain and swelling.
  • Medication. Pain relievers that your doctor either prescribes or recommends can help you feel more comfortable.
  • Physical therapy. Shoulder exercises can help you regain muscle strength, flexibility and a full range of motion.

Chances are these measures will help you recover within three months.

Surgery is typically a last resort for a separated shoulder, and doctors generally take a wait-and-see approach to give the injury a reasonable amount of time to heal. However, if the ligaments that once supported and stabilized the collarbone are severely torn, surgery may be necessary to repair them, according to the NIAMS.

Rehabilitation is necessary after surgery to restore strength and flexibility in the shoulder.

reviewed 2/11/2020

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