by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

You’re slipping down a hill and grab a tree limb to stop your fall. You wish you hadn’t because now your shoulder’s hurting like all get-out. You think you dislocated it.

You need medical help as soon as possible. The only way to rule out a break is to have X-rays. If there’s no way to get the help, here are some things I’d do to diagnose and treat the shoulder injury. (You can also view these tips in the video above.)

Tips for Diagnosing a Dislocated Shoulder

You may have a dislocated shoulder if:

  • It feels best to hold your forearm out with your good hand, across your abdomen or chest, elbow bent at a ninety-degree angle.
  • There’s a soft spot and possible indentation in your injured shoulder because the ball isn’t in the socket. (You can tell the difference if you compare it to the good shoulder.)

How a Shoulder Gets Dislocated

The top of the upper arm ends in the shape of a ball. The ball fits into a socket, or cup, in the shoulder bone. When you dislocate your shoulder:

  1. Trauma jerks the ball out of the socket.
  2. Shoulder muscles pull the ball back, but now it’s outside the socket.
  3. The ball is tight up against the socket and can’t get back in.

How to Fix a Dislocated Shoulder

To fix a dislocated shoulder, you must pull the arm away from the socket so the ball is pulled beyond the edge of the socket cup. To do this, you need traction from weights or someone pulling while your arm is in a proper position.

In my video I demonstrate the top three ways I would attempt to fix a dislocated shoulder. In each method, you have to pull on the arm slowly and steadily. (Jerking causes the muscles to react and contract. It could also break a bone.) The muscles do the rest, and eventually, the ball pops back into the socket.