Shoulder Instability/Dislocation

What is shoulder instability?

Shoulder instability describes a loose shoulder joint. If it is so loose that the ball of the joint slips out of the socket of the joint, then the shoulder is dislocated.

Shoulder instability may occur due to:

  • an injury where the shoulder is dislocated – during the injury, the tissues of the joint capsule that hold the shoulder in place are stretched or torn so even when the shoulder is put back into the place, it remains loose
  • repetitive shoulder movements (eg swimming, playing volleyball) that can stretch the joint capsule
  • a genetic problem that results in over-elastic connective tissue (people with this condition are often called ‘double jointed’)

What are the symptoms of shoulder instability?

Over time, shoulder instability results in:

  • frequent subluxation where the shoulder slips in certain positions (eg throwing something overhead) and usually causes a pinching pain
  • frequent dislocation where the shoulder slips out completely and causes severe pain. You may need to go to a hospital emergency department to have your shoulder put back into place
  • numbness around the shoulder due to nerve damage that can occur when the shoulder is dislocated. Some of the shoulder muscles may be weak until the nerve recovers

What does your doctor look for?

Your doctor will take your medical history and perform a physical examination that will include a shoulder assessment. During this assessment, your doctor will check the strength and mobility of your shoulder. What investigations are needed?

Your doctor may request an X-ray to help confirm if your shoulder was previously injured or dislocated. If you go to the doctor with a dislocated shoulder, an X-ray will be needed to check for any fractures.

How is shoulder instability treated?

Treatment options for shoulder instability include:

  • non-drug therapy (eg rest, physiotherapy, strapping)
  • medication (eg anti-inflammatories)
  • surgery

Shoulder instability surgery

If non-surgical therapy doesn’t help, surgery may be needed. Although there are several different techniques, the goal is generally to tighten loose ligaments by attaching tissue to bone. In most cases, surgery is done using arthroscopy (keyhole surgery).

Our specialists at Orthopaedic Clinics Gold Coast will discuss whether this procedure is suitable for you at your visit.