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They're easy to confuse. But a dislocated shoulder and a separated shoulder are two distinct injuries. Here's the rundown.

  • Dislocated shoulder. In this injury, a fall or blow causes the top of your arm bone to pop out of the shoulder socket. Unlike a lot of joints in your body -- your elbow, for instance -- the shoulder is incredibly mobile. You can twist and move your upper arm in almost any direction. But there's a price for this ease of movement. The shoulder joint is inherently unstable, prone to slipping out of place.
    In severe cases of dislocated shoulder, the tissue and nerves around the shoulder joint get damaged. If you keep dislocating your shoulder, you could wind up with chronic instability and weakness.
  • Separated shoulder. Despite the name, this injury doesn't directly affect the shoulder joint. Instead, a fall or blow tears one of the ligaments that connects the collarbone to the shoulder blade.
    Since it's no longer anchored, the collarbone may move out of position and push against the skin near the top of your shoulder. Although separated shoulders can cause deformity, people usually recover fully with time.

You might get a separated shoulder or a dislocated shoulder by:

  • Falling onto your shoulder, especially on a hard surface
  • Being hit in the shoulder
  • Trying to break a fall with your hand

Dislocated shoulders can also result from a sharp twisting of the arm.

Sports that pose a higher risk of these two injuries are:

  • Football
  • Hockey
  • Rock climbing
  • Rugby
  • Soccer
  • Skiing
  • Volleyball

What Does a Dislocated Shoulder or Separated Shoulder Feel Like?

Symptoms of a dislocated shoulder are:

  • Pain in the shoulder and upper arm that hurts more when you move the area
  • Deformation of the shoulder -- a bump in the front or back of your shoulder, depending on how the bone has been dislocated

Symptoms of a separated shoulder are:

  • Intense pain as soon as the injury occurs
  • Tenderness of the shoulder and collarbone
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Deformed shoulder

To diagnose a separated shoulder or dislocated shoulder, your doctor will give you a thorough exam. You may need X-rays to rule out broken bones and other conditions.

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