A separated shoulder is an injury to the junction between the collarbone (clavicle) and the shoulder. It usually is a soft tissue or ligament injury. This is not the same as a shoulder dislocation, in which the ball and socket joint of the shoulder slips out of place. It is often difficult to tell a moderately severe shoulder separation from a fracture to one of the shoulder bones or a dislocation of the shoulder.
A fall or a sharp blow to the shoulder usually precedes this injury. For example, like that to a quarterback in football when he is sacked and falls on the tip of his shoulder under the weight of a heavy defender.
The degree and severity of separation can be determined with X-ray. The position of the clavicle relative to shoulder correlates with the extent of damage to the supporting tissues, especially the ligaments. These ligaments are the acromioclavicular (AC) and coracoclavicular (CC) ligaments. Either or both of the ligaments can be sprained or torn.
Treatment of shoulder separation is determined on a case-to case basis since the extent of separation varies widely. With a minor sprain, the arm will be immobilized for a few days and the patient will be advised to ice the arm during the first 48 hours. Pain relievers can also be used. With a more severe tear of the ligament(s) surgery may be necessary, followed by immobilization for about a month and rehabilitation.