Concerned that recent strain on your shoulder could have caused serious damage like a separation? Don’t miss this quick and easy guide to recognizing symptoms and understanding the severity of this common shoulder injury:
What is a Shoulder Separation?
Where the shoulder blade (scapula) in your upper back meets your collar bone (clavicle) is a neat junction referred to as the AC (acromioclavicular) joint. Held together by connective ligaments and tendons, the AC joint is responsible for keeping your upper arms in place. Occasionally through forceful impact from an accident, fall, or contact sport like rugby, the soft tissue in this joint can become stretched beyond its limits and either strain, tear or rupture completely. In this case, the shoulder is literally separating which is why the injury is called a “shoulder separation.”
Are There Different Grades of Shoulder Separation Severity?
Turns out one shoulder separation grade doesn’t fit all; in fact, there is a spectrum of 6 different grades of severity when it comes to this type of injury. A grade 1 AC shoulder separation involves minor tearing or partial straining of the joint. A grade 2 is a level more strain and potential, yet sometimes indiscernible, displacement of the joint, but the pain lasts for weeks as opposed to the temporary discomfort of a grade 1.
A grade 3 shoulder displacement is characterized by a total separation of the joint which is visibly and physically diagnosed through a doctor’s manual examination. Severity grades 4 through 6 are much rarer, often lead to disfiguration, and typically require surgical intervention and weeks of physical therapy.
What are the Symptoms of a Shoulder Separation?
Even a minor shoulder separation may not be totally noticeable at first. In the event of a fall or impact to the shoulder, keep an eye out for these signs and symptoms:
Shoulder pain right at the top of the shoulder and end of the collar bone
Swelling of the AC joint
Limited range of motion of the shoulder joint (stiffness to complete immobilization)
Disfigurement in the form of a visible lump on top of the injured joint
Pain, discomfort, and immobilization will be worse depending on the degree of injury incurred.
Am I at Risk?
If you are an athlete who competes in high-impact sports like football or rugby, or if you partake in activities with increased risk of falling like skiing or gymnastics, you may be at higher risk for developing a shoulder separation injury, especially if you have had this type of injury before. You may be surprised to learn that older adults experience this injury almost as much as young people as well. Why? Because the risk of falling increases with age, especially for those over 65, and the shoulder muscles and connective tissues wear down and weaken over time, making the joint less stable overall.
To prevent shoulder separation, be smart about preventing falls and avoiding accidents and impacts that could damage your shoulder. Also, stretch and strengthen your shoulders, arms, and upper back to help stabilize and reinforce the joint over time.