A separated shoulder is an injury to the acromioclavicular joint on the top of the shoulder, or to the ligaments that hold the collarbone to the shoulder blade. In a mild separated shoulder injury, the ligaments may just be stretched. In severe injuries, ligaments may be completely ruptured. The shoulder joint is formed at the junction of three bones: the collarbone, the shoulder blade and the arm bone. A shoulder separation occurs where the collarbone and the shoulder blade come together.
In most people, a separated shoulder does not usually require surgery. Instead, conservative treatment, such as rest, ice and pain relievers, is often enough to relieve the pain. Most people regain full shoulder function within a few weeks after experiencing a separated shoulder.
Pain is the most common symptom of a separated shoulder, and is usually severe at the time of injury. Evidence of traumatic injury to the shoulder, such as swelling and bruising, are also commonly found. Other symptoms of a separated shoulder may include:
- Shoulder or arm weakness;
- Limited shoulder movement;
- Tenderness or soreness is felt at the junction, or joint, between the collarbone and shoulder;
- An obvious upward pointing lump on the top of the shoulder is seen in more serious separations.
The most common cause of a separated shoulder is a blow to the point of the shoulder or a fall directly on the shoulder. A shoulder separation occurs when a sharp blow or a fall causes the collarbone to be forced away from the bone of the shoulder. Usually a sports injury, a shoulder separation is more common in contact sports such as football, rugby, hockey or wrestling. A car accident or a fall may also cause this injury. The injury may stretch or tear the ligaments that hold the collarbone to the shoulder blade.
A person may be at higher risk of a separated shoulder if he/she participates in contact sports, such as football and hockey or in sports that may involve falls.
Most people fully recover from a separated shoulder with conservative treatment. Continued shoulder pain is possible, however, if:
- A person has a severe separation that involves significant displacement of the collarbone;
- A person develops arthritis in the shoulder;
- Other structures around the shoulder, such as the rotator cuff, are damaged.