Shoulder Separation

A shoulder separation happens when the ligaments between the collarbone and shoulder blade are torn. Often shoulder separations happen after a direct fall onto the shoulder, car accidents, or through contact sports. This injury can take a while to heal, and most people will recover within 6-10 weeks without surgery. However, severe cases may need surgical intervention in order to repair the shoulder. Let’s take a look at what exactly is a shoulder separation and what are the early signs and symptoms.

Football player getting tacked and sustained a shoulder seperation

What is it?

A shoulder separation, or acromioclavicular (AC) dislocation, is when there is a partial or complete separation of the two parts of the shoulder, known as the clavicle (collarbone) and the acromion (shoulder blade). A fall onto the shoulder can cause a tear of the ligaments that connect the clavicle to the acromion. If this tear is severe enough you there can be a visible separation between the two bones which causes a “step deformity”. You can fully recover from a shoulder separation and have full function of your shoulder in spite of having this step deformity. Now let’s look at some early warning signs and symptoms of shoulder separation injuries.

What are the signs and symptoms?

  • Pain immediately after the injury occurs

  • Swelling and bruising

  • Tenderness around the AC (acromioclavicular) joint

  • Limited movement in the shoulder area

  • Possible deformity if not treated properly

How is it treated?

A shoulder separation is often caused by a fall onto the shoulder or through contact sports. After such an injury the muscles around the shoulder and the neck can be tight and sore. Soft tissue treatment such as massage and active release can release tension in these muscles. It is important soon after the injury to avoid overhead positions with the arm since this could further injury the ligaments around the AC joint. Often you would be advised to wear a sling to support and immobilize the shoulder for 2-3 weeks. This will allow the ligaments around the AC joint to heal. You will take off the sling during treatment for some gentle stretching and exercise. In cases where the injury was severe even after the shoulder separation has healed there may be a visible elevation of your collarbone. This is referred to as a “step deformity”. In most cases you will not have pain in the shoulder and will still have full mobility and function of your shoulder.

Common Home Exercises

Shoulder pendulums

Bend over slightly. Keep your arm relaxed and allow gravity to gently traction your shoulder. Gently move your upper body to provide some momentum as your shoulder swings side to side or in a circle. Perform 10-20 repetition for 3 sets.

Physiotherapist Eric Lau demonstrating a shoulder pendulum exercise.

Shoulder external rotation isometrics

Standing beside a wall, bend your elbow to 90 degrees. Place a small towel along the end of your forearm and the wall. Turn your forearm into the wall as you externally rotated your shoulder. Push against the wall for 5 seconds. Repeat 10 -15 repetition for 3 sets.

Physiotherapist Eric Lau demonstrating a isometric shoulder external rotation exercise.

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