Shoulder Dislocation

The shoulder is a highly mobile joint that sacrifices stability for an increased range of movement. As a consequence of this trade off, dislocations are common, with an incidence of up to 1.7% in the general population.

Shoulder dislocations account for over half of major joint dislocations which present to emergency departments; if not managed correctly they can lead to chronic joint instability and pain.


The most common type of dislocation is anteroinferior (usually just termed ‘anterior’), constituting around 95% of shoulder dislocations, with posterior and inferior dislocations making up the remainder.

An anterior dislocation is classically caused by force being applied to an extended, abducted, and externally rotated humerus. Posterior dislocations are typically caused by seizures or electrocution, but can occur through trauma (a direct blow to the anterior shoulder or force through a flexed adducted arm).

Importantly, posterior dislocations are the most commonly missed dislocation of the shoulder, especially as the radiographic evidence of them can often be subtle.

Figure 1 – The ligaments of the shoulder joint

Clinical Features

All dislocations present with a painful shoulder, acutely reduced mobility, and a feeling of instability. Patients will be reluctant to move the affected limb.

On examination, there is often an asymmetry with the contralateral side. Often there is a loss of shoulder contours (from a ‘flattened deltoid’) and an anterior bulge from the head of the humerus may also be seen.

It is important to assess the neurovascular status of the arm, which can become compromised in some cases, especially the axillary and suprascapular nerves.

Associated Injuries

Shoulder dislocations have many commonly associated injuries, which can be divided into bony or labral and ligamentous problems:

  • Bony:
    • Bony Bankart lesions are fractures of the anterior inferior glenoid bone, most commonly present in those with recurrent dislocations
    • Hill-Sachs defects are impaction injuries to the chondral surface of the posterior and superior portions of the humeral head, present in approximately 80% of traumatic dislocations
    • Fractures of the greater tuberosity and the surgical neck of humerus can also occur
  • Labral, ligamentous, and rotator cuff:
    • (Soft) Bankart lesions are avulsions of the anterior labrum and inferior glenohumeral ligament
    • Glenohumeral ligament avulsion
    • Rotator cuff injuries occur frequently in anterior dislocations; in younger patients, around a third have at least one tear


Imaging forms the bulk of investigations required for shoulder dislocations. Plain radiographs are usually adequate in the acute setting; a trauma series is required, comprising anterior-posterior, Y-scapular, and axial views

Anterior dislocations can usually be spotted on the AP film as it is visibly out of joint, the Y-scapular view also will confirm that it is anteriorly dislocated. Remember, it is important to check for concurrent bony injuries too, as discussed above.

Figure 2 – Anterior shoulder dislocation, showing both AP and Y views

The ‘light bulb sign’ suggests posterior dislocation (Figure 3), as the humerus is fixed in internal rotation. The Y view is very useful for differentiating between anterior and posterior dislocations.

If labral and rotator cuff injuries are suspected, an MRI of the shoulder may also be warranted for further investigation and classification.


Figure 3 – Lightbulb Sign, suggesting a posterior shoulder dislocation

Management should initially be an A to E trauma assessment of the patient, as dislocations frequently occur following trauma, ensuring to also stabilise and examine for other injuries. Provide good appropriate analgesia, as this will aid in definitive management of the dislocation too.

As with most orthopaedic conditions, the principle is reduction, immobilisation and rehabilitation. For shoulder dislocations, a closed reduction, such as the Hippocratic method, should be performed by a trained specialist, involving orthopaedics early before attempting any reduction.

Ensure to assess the neurovascular status both pre- and post-reduction. Any failed closed reduction may warrant attempted manipulation under anaesthesia in theatres.

Once reduced, the arm should be placed in to a broad-arm sling; the length of immobilisation is still controversial for anterior dislocation; typically 2 weeks is used, however longer may be warranted for posterior dislocations.

All dislocations require physiotherapy aiming to restore range of movement, functionality and to strengthen the rotator cuff and pericapsular musculature. Future surgical treatment may be warranted for recurrent pain, instability, large Hill-Sachs defects, or large (bony) Bankart lesions.


Despite treatment, chronic pain, limited mobilitystiffness, and recurrence are possible; unfortunately, recurrence is still relatively common, particularly in those who continue high risk activities.

Other common complications include adhesive capsulitis, nerve damage, and rotator cuff injury is common and may require surgery. Degenerative joint disease can occur, typically after labral and cartilaginous injuries and chronic recurrence.

Key Points

  • The type of shoulder dislocation is classified in relation of the humeral head to the infraglenoid tubercle
  • There are many associated injuries for all types of shoulder dislocation
  • A trauma series of radiographs are required for evaluation and neurovascular status must be assessed, both pre- and post-reduction
  • Treatment is primarily non-operative, following “reduce, restrict, rehabilitate” rules


Question 1 / 3
What is the most common type of shoulder dislocation?


Question 2 / 3
Which peripheral nerve is most at risk from an anterior shoulder dislocation?


Question 3 / 3
What is a bony Bankart lesion?


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