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A shoulder sprain is stretching or tearing of the ligaments that stabilize the shoulder. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that cross joints and connect bones to each other.
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Shoulder sprains may be caused by:
- Falling on an outstretched arm
- Forced twisting of the arm
- A blow to the shoulder
- Overuse or repetitive movement of the shoulder joint
Factors that may increase your risk of a shoulder sprain include:
- Playing sports, such as swimming, volleyball, baseball, gymnastics, and tennis
Occupations that involve:
- Repetitive shoulder movements, including heavy lifting
- Lifting at or above the height of your shoulder
- Vibration of the shoulder
- Irregular posture or movements
- Poor coordination
- Poor balance
- Inadequate flexibility and strength in muscles and ligaments
- Loose joints or connective tissue disorders
Shoulder sprain may cause:
- Pain, tenderness, and swelling around the shoulder
- Redness, warmth, or bruising around the shoulder
- Limited ability to move the shoulder and increased pain with movement
You will be asked about your symptoms and how you injured your shoulder. The stability of your shoulder joint and the severity of the injury will be assessed.
Tests may include:
Shoulder sprains are graded according to their severity:
- Grade 1—Some stretching with micro-tearing of ligament tissue
- Grade 2—Partial tearing of ligament tissue
- Grade 3—Complete tearing of ligament tissue
The shoulder will need time to heal. Activities that cause pain or put extra stress on the shoulder should be avoided.
Ice may help decrease swelling and pain in the first few days after the injury.
Pain Relief Medications
To manage pain, your doctor may advise:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen
- Topical pain medication—creams or patches that are applied to the skin
- Prescription pain relievers
Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.
Extra support may be needed to help protect, support, and keep the shoulder in line while it heals. Supportive steps may include:
- Brace or sling—A brace may be needed to keep the shoulder still as it heals. Do not return to activities or sports until your doctor gives you permission to do so.
- Rehabilitation exercises—Begin exercises to restore flexibility, range of motion, and strength in your shoulder as recommended by your doctor or physical therapist.
- Surgery—Surgery is rarely needed to repair a mild shoulder sprain without instability or dysfunction. However, in athletes earlier surgery may be considered to avoid recurrent injury.
Shoulder sprains may not always be preventable. There are steps you can take to reduce your chance of getting a shoulder sprain. These include:
- Wearing protective equipment and using proper technique while playing sports
- Keeping shoulders, back, and chest strong with regular exercises to absorb the energy of sudden physical stress
American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
Benjamin HJ, Hang BT. Common Acute Upper Extremity Injuries In Sports. Clinical Pediatric Emergency Medicine. 2007;8(1):15-30.
Shoulder problems. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health%5FInfo/Shoulder%5FProblems/default.asp. Updated April 2014. Accessed May 11, 2016.
Shoulder separation. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00033. Updated October 2007. Accessed May 11, 2016.
1/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Massey T, Derry S, et al. Topical NSAIDs for acute pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(6):CD007402.
- Reviewer: Warren A. Bodine, DO, CAQSM
- Review Date: 05/2016
- Update Date: 06/22/2015