Shoulder separation is not an injury to the main shoulder joint itself. It is an injury to the top of the shoulder where the collarbone (clavicle) meets the top of the shoulder blade (acromion of the scapula).
It is not the same as a shoulder dislocation. A dislocated shoulder occurs when the arm bone comes out of the main shoulder joint.
About your injury
Most shoulder separation injuries are caused by falling onto the shoulder. This causes a tear in the tissue that connects the collarbone and top of the shoulder blade. These tears can also come from car accidents and sports injuries.
This injury can make the shoulder look abnormal, from the end of a bone sticking up or the shoulder hanging lower than normal.
Pain is usually at the very top of the shoulder.
Your health care provider may have you hold onto a weight while he or she examines you to see if your collarbone sticks out. An x-ray of your shoulder may help diagnose a shoulder separation.
What to expect
Most people recover from a shoulder separation without surgery, within 2 to 12 weeks. You will be treated with ice, medicines, a sling, and then exercises as you continue to heal.
Your recovery may be slower if you have:
Arthritis in your shoulder joint
Damaged cartilage (cushioning tissue) between your collarbone and top of your shoulder blade
A severe shoulder separation
You may need surgery right away if you have:
Numbness in your fingers
Muscle weakness in your arm
Severe deformity of the joint
Self-care at home
Make an ice pack by putting ice in a sealable plastic bag and wrapping a cloth around it. Do not put the bag of ice directly on the area, as it could damage your skin.
On the first day of your injury, apply the ice every 10 to 15 minutes, for 20 minutes each time. After the first day, ice the area every 3 to 4 hours for 20 minutes each time. Do this for 2 days or longer.
For pain, you can take ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), aspirin, or acetaminophen (Tylenol). You can buy these pain medicines without a prescription.
Talk with your health care provider before using these medicines if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or have had stomach ulcers or bleeding.
Do not take more than the amount recommended on the bottle.
Do not give aspirin to children.
You may be given a shoulder sling to use for a few weeks.
Once you have less pain, begin range of motion exercises so that your shoulder does not get stuck in place. This is called contracture. Make sure you check with your doctor before doing any of these motions.
After your injury has healed, do not lift heavier objects for 8 to 12 weeks.
If you continue to have pain, your health care provider will probably ask you to come back in 1 week to decide if you need to:
See an orthopedist (bone doctor)
Begin physical therapy or range of motion exercises
When to call the doctor
Call your doctor or go to the emergency room right away if you have:
Weakness in your arm or fingers
Numb or cold fingers
A sharp decrease in how well you can move your arm
A lump on top of your shoulder that makes your shoulder look abnormal
C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.