How to Reduce a Dislocated Shoulder

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People who sustain a shoulder dislocation need to have their shoulder restored to its correct position. This process is called "reducing the shoulder." Usually, medical assistance is necessary to avoid damaging tissues, nerves, and blood vessels in and around the shoulder joint.

This article explains the symptoms of shoulder dislocation and how to reduce the shoulder in an emergency.

Symptoms of Shoulder Dislocation

A dislocated shoulder is often unlike what you see in the movies. The signs may be overt or subtle. The dislocation can be partial (subluxation) or complete (luxation).

Common symptoms of a shoulder dislocation include:

  • Sudden pain around the shoulder
  • Deformity of the shoulder
  • Holding the forearm due to shoulder pain

If you think you have a dislocated shoulder, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. However, if no medical help is available, you can proceed with reducing the shoulder, albeit with extreme caution.

Warning

You should not use shoulder self-reduction to avoid medical care or self-treat recurrent dislocations. These situations would instead benefit from a proper evaluation and appropriate treatment interventions.

When Self-Reduction Is Indicated

In some cases, getting medical help may not be possible. For example, some people who do certain activities could be days from help, including:

  • Hikers
  • Kayakers
  • Mountaineers
  • Outdoor athletes

Therefore, if you engage in these types of activities, you should learn how to properly reduce a shoulder in the event of an accident.

A dislocated shoulder may lead to potentially serious complications if not treated promptly. These include:

How to Reduce a Shoulder

Healthcare providers commonly use anti-inflammatory injections or muscle relaxants before a reduction. However, these are usually not available in the wilderness or a remote setting. This inability to access muscle relaxers may pose a problem since reducing a joint is near-impossible if the muscles around the shoulder are tense and seized.

Therefore, the first and most crucial step is relaxing as much as possible before the reduction. Do not proceed if there is any screaming, panic, or chaos. Instead, create a calm environment, removing anyone causing undue stress, anxiety, or agitation.

How to reduce a dislocated shoulder
Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

Lie Down and Relax

Have the injured party lie on their back in a comfortable position. Then, allow the muscles around the shoulder to relax as much as possible.

Allow the injured person to rest for several minutes, encouraging long, deep inhalations and exhalations rather than rapid breathing. It often helps to coach the individual to follow your breathing patterns until they settle.

Reach Over Your Head

To begin, slowly extend the injured arm out to the side, raising the arm gently and bending the elbow so that the palm touches the top of the head.

A helper can support the arm, although this is not necessary. Movements should be slow; pain is a sign to slow things down.

Gently rotate the hand behind the head.

Move Your Hand Toward Your Neck

Gradually move the hand down toward the nape of the neck (as if trying to scratch your neck).

Reach For Your Opposite Shoulder

Next, move the hand toward the opposite shoulder. As you do this, the shoulder should pop back into place. If it does, you should feel immediate relief. Again, do not push, pull, or tug the arm.

If the joint doesn't pop back instantly, take several moments to relax, breathe in slowly and deeply, and try again. When fully relaxed, the chances of a successful reduction are good.

If the reduction efforts do not work, do not panic or force the joint into place. There could be other problems, such as a fracture or ruptured connective tissues, interfering with the reduction.

Afterward

When the shoulder is back in position, keep the upper arm to the side of the body. Then, fold the forearm across the abdomen in a 90-degree position.

If it is comfortable, place a towel or cloth under the injured forearm to create a sling, tying the ends over the opposite shoulder (one end to the front and one end to the back).

Seek medical assistance immediately.

In such cases, bind a towel or cloth around the person's upper body to stabilize the shoulder in a comfortable position and seek immediate help.

Recap

You should always receive medical assistance to reduce a dislocated shoulder if possible. However, if you are isolated and unable to access medical care, you can attempt to reduce a shoulder on your own. Relax, reach your arm over your head, touch your hand to the bottom of your neck, reach for the opposite shoulder, and the shoulder should pop back into place.

Summary

A shoulder reduction is a medical procedure that you should only attempt on your own when medical care is unavailable (for example, on a hike in a remote area). After you reduce your shoulder, seek follow-up medical attention as soon as you can.

A Word From Verywell

If self-reducing a dislocated shoulder is necessary, the keywords to remember are "slow" and "relaxed." Pain is a sign that you are either moving too quickly, the muscles are too tense, or there may be other injuries that you are unaware of.

It is far better to take as much time as reasonably needed before performing a reduction. Unless there is extreme pain, it often helps for the injured party to lie in a comfortable position, chat, and allow any panic to subside. A slow respiration rate is usually the sign that you are ready to proceed.

After the shoulder is reduced, seek medical help even if everything seems 100% okay. There may be other problems that need tending to that only a doctor can diagnose. A dislocated shoulder may also require pain control and shoulder rehabilitation efforts.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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