Coming Back From Shoulder Separation

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • A “shoulder separation” is a different injury than a shoulder dislocation
  • The shoulder separation involves a sprain to the ligaments of a joint at the point of the shoulder near the end of the collarbone
  • We will often see these injuries when a player is tackled or falls to the ground on the point of the shoulder, with the arm at the player’s side
  • Most shoulder separations from sports injuries can successfully be treated without surgery

I’ve written recently about shoulder dislocation, a serious condition in which the ball portion of the shoulder (humerus) becomes completely dislodged from the socket. This week we’ll discuss a shoulder separation, another common shoulder injury. But first let’s clear up some terminology to avoid confusion.

A separated shoulder refers to an injury to the ligaments of the acromioclavicular joint (commonly known as the AC joint), which is the joint between the end of your collarbone and the upper part of your shoulder blade. It’s located near the point of the shoulder.

Most shoulder separations occur during some type of hard fall or contact, such as a quarterback being tackled on to his shoulder, or a cyclist falling and landing on his shoulder. When I see a hard fall to the ground I’ll be suspicious for either a shoulder separation or a broken collarbone if the athlete fell with the arm tucked in to the side, and I’m suspicious for a shoulder dislocation if the athlete fell on to the outstretched hand.

There are six types of shoulder separations. Types 1 and 2 are the most common ones we see in sports injuries and are treated without surgery. Type 3 injuries are also reasonably common, and most of these are treated without surgery (although there is some debate about early repair for the throwing shoulder of an elite athlete…). Types 4-6 are not seen very often in sports injuries and these will require surgery. I refer to these as “types” although some surgeons will call these “grades”.

  • Type 1 – The ligaments have a mild sprain without a tear.
  • Type 2 – The AC ligament tears, leading to a partial separation.
  • Type 3 – The AC ligament and other associated ligaments tear, leading to a complete separation.
  • Types 4-6 – These are complete separations, serious injuries often requiring urgent surgery. I have seen one type 4 separation in a D1 quarterback during my 23-year career.

Here are typical return to play times for the common types:

  • Type 1: You can usually return to play 2-3 weeks after the injury, depending on your sport and position. You should be comfortable, with full motion, normal strength, and ability to do sport specific motions. Treatment includes rest and anti-inflammatory medication.
  • Types 2 and 3: A Type 2 injury takes about 3-4 weeks to fully heal, and a type 3 injury takes about six to eight weeks to heal. We’ll almost always treat these without surgery, and we’ll use the same return to play criteria as indicated above for the Type 1 injury. If you’re in a collision sport (such as football) I’ll usually recommend you return to play with an AC joint pad to minimize the chance of another injury.

SideLineSportsDoc