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  • Writer's pictureDr. Terrell Joseph

Did I Separate My Shoulder?

separated shoulder

A separated shoulder, also known as an acromioclavicular (AC) joint separation, is an injury that Dr. Joseph of Vail-Summit Orthopaedics & Neurosurgery sees year-round among the highly-active residents of Eagle and Summit County.

Here are some signs that you may have separated your shoulder, plus the best treatment options to help get you back to the sports and adventures you love most.

How Do Shoulder Separations Occur?

What a separated shoulder looks like

The AC joint is located right between the clavicle (collarbone) and the acromion (part of the shoulder blade).

A shoulder separation occurs when the ligaments that hold the clavicle and acromion together are stretched or torn.

This injury is often the result of a direct hit to the shoulder or a hard fall. Athletes who play hockey or football, or participate in sports such as cycling or skiing, have a higher risk of a shoulder separation injury.

Symptoms of a separated shoulder

What Are the Symptoms of a Separated Shoulder?

The symptoms of a separated shoulder can range from mild to severe depending on how much damage the AC joint has sustained. These include:

  • Pain on the top of the shoulder

  • A visible bump or deformity where the separation occurred

  • Weakness

  • Decreased range of motion

  • Clicking or grinding sensation during arm movement

  • Swelling

  • Bruising

Do I Need To See a Doctor for a Separated Shoulder?

Visiting an orthopaedic physician for a separated shoulder

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a separated shoulder, you’ll want to see an orthopaedic specialist for an accurate diagnosis. Early treatment is essential to help you regain the full functionality of your shoulder and prevent further damage or long-term complications.

Dr. Joseph will review your medical history and how the injury occurred, followed by a physical examination to check for pain, swelling, bruising, and range of motion. In many cases, an X-ray may be performed to confirm the diagnosis and severity.

Shoulder separations are graded on a scale of 1-6, depending on the amount of damage to the ligaments.

  • Grade 1 - Mild separation; sprain of the AC ligament

  • Grade 2 - Partial dislocation of the AC joint; complete tear in the AC ligament

  • Grade 3 - Complete separation of the AC joint; tears in both the AC and coracoclavicular (CC) ligaments; joint is visibly out of position

  • Grades 4-6 - These severe injuries are uncommon and typically result in extensive damage and displacement; surgery is almost always required

What Is the Treatment and Recovery Time for a Shoulder Separation?

Because every person and injury is unique, Dr. Joseph will work with you to develop an appropriate treatment plan that fits your lifestyle. Whenever possible, he will start with less-invasive treatment methods, which may include:

  • Rest and activity modification

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

  • Ice to reduce pain and swelling

  • Immobilization of the arm with a sling

  • Physical therapy to regain strength and restore range of motion

The majority of grade 1-3 injuries are often treated successfully with conservative measures. Dr. Joseph may recommend surgery for grade 3 separations if:

  • You have a grade 3 injury that isn’t responding to treatment after a couple of months

  • You are highly active or rely on the use of your shoulder for heavy work or overhead movement

Recovery time for a separated shoulder will vary but typically ranges between two to 12 weeks. If surgery is needed, a full recovery can take up to four to six months.

Expert Treatment for Shoulder Separations in the Vail Valley and Summit County

If you think you may have separated your shoulder, contact Dr. Joseph and his team at Vail-Summit Orthopaedics & Neurosurgery today.

Dr. Joseph is known for his expertise in diagnosing and treating shoulder injuries in our mountain communities. He and his team will help you return to your favorite sports or outdoor adventures as quickly as possible.

Same-day appointments are often available! Call (970) 476-7220 or request an appointment online.

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