Subluxation and Joint Dislocation

man with leg pain
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A subluxation is a condition that occurs when a joint begins to dislocate. However, instead of the joint surfaces completely losing contact, a subluxation can be considered a "partial dislocation."

A subluxation is often the result of a traumatic or acute injury. In these cases, a subluxation of a joint can be quite painful. Subluxations may lead to damage of the normal structures that support a joint. For example, when an ACL tear occurs, often the joint is starting to dislocate, and the ligaments that normally support the knee joint are stretched too far, causing the knee joint to sublux.

Signs of Joint Subluxation

Some of the common symptoms of a joint subluxation include:

  • Pain around the injured joint
  • A sensation of wanting to give-out or being unstable
  • Swelling of the joint
  • Limited mobility of the joint

Subluxations most often occur after an acute injury to the joint. Injuries can include sports injuries, car crashes, falls from a height, or even just simple twisting or reaching movements. Often patients describe hearing a pop or snap of the joint when the injury occurs.

Subluxations can also occur as a result of loose joints. In patients with generalized joint laxity, their body may allow for joint subluxations without any trauma or injury. These patients often have no symptoms and may not need any treatment for joint subluxations. If these joint subluxations become symptomatic, treatment may be recommended.


Early treatment of a joint subluxation should begin by ensuring the joint is in the proper position. If there is any concern that the joint is not back in position, an injury called a dislocation, then you should be evaluated by a medical professional who can determine if further treatment is needed to reposition the joint.

Once the joint alignment is confirmed, treatment can be focused on reducing inflammation of the affected joint. Steps that can be helpful to reduce inflammation include:

  • Rest: Resting the joint may require the use of a splint, sling, or crutches. Depending on which joint is injured will determine what devices may help you to rest the joint. Limiting the exertion of the joint and allowing the injured joint o rest will help allow the inflammation subside.
  • Ice: Icing an injured joint can be a very helpful step to reduce inflammation. Applying ice packs to the area frequently can help quiet down an injured joint.
  • Elevate: Elevation is helpful to reduce swelling and pain. Placing the injured joint above the level of the heart, and lying down can help allow the inflammation to subside.
  • Anti-Inflammatory Medications: Anti-inflammatory medications, often called NSAIDs, are helpful tools to alleviate swelling and inflammation. By limiting the inflammation they can also help to reduce pain.
  • Splints/Supports/Braces: Braces are often helpful at controlling the excessive motion of an unstable joint. Until there can be a more definitive treatment plan, a brace can help to stabilize an unstable joint.

Once the acute inflammation has subsided, a long-term treatment plan can be pursued. Many joint subluxations are one-time events, and patients will be able to recover full function of the joint. However, some other injuries can cause long-term and recurrent problems. If your symptoms of instability persist, then you should seek medical help to determine a longer-term plan.

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