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Shoulder Instability

Shoulder instability occurs when the shoulder joint is pushed past its limits and moves too much out of its normal structural form. Shoulders get a higher degree of use than many other joints, especially relating to the rise of sports popularity.

Compassionate Healing Starts Here

As the referral center for Greater Cincinnati and the region, the Sports Medicine & Concussion program provides top quality care for even the most complex musculoskeletal conditions. We customize treatment plans that use the most innovative, effective surgical and nonsurgical techniques to restore function, relieve pain for professional athletes, high school sports teams and anyone who leads an active lifestyle.

To schedule an appointment, please call the UC Health Sports Medicine & Concussion team at 513-475-8690.


Understanding Shoulder Instability

The shoulder is the most flexible joint in the body. But it does have limits. If the joint is pushed past these limits, the shoulder joint may move too much. This is called shoulder instability.

The shoulder is a shallow ball-and-socket joint. The humeral head is the ball of the top of the upper arm bone (humerus). The glenoid is a shallow socket on the shoulder blade. The humeral head rests on the glenoid and is held in place by strong tissues. These include:

  • Labrum. This is a circle of cartilage. It covers the rim of the socket.

  • Capsule. This is a sheet of ligaments and other tough tissues. It encloses the joint and connects the ball to the socket.

  • Rotator cuff. This is a group of four muscles and tendons. These stretch between the ball and shoulder blade.

Shoulder instability can occur when any of these structures are weakened or torn, and the ball doesn’t stay centered in the socket. Multidirectional shoulder instability means the ball moves too far in more than one direction (forward, back, or down). This extra movement can lead to discomfort, pain, and problems using the shoulder.

A healthy, stable shoulder

The head of the arm bone (humerus) rests in a socket (glenoid), much like a golf ball fits on a tee. Parts of the joint called stabilizers hold the humeral head and glenoid together. These include a sheet of ligaments and other tough fibers called the capsule. This encloses the humeral head and glenoid.

A loose, unstable shoulder

The leading cause of instability is an injury that forces the humeral head out of its socket. If the humerus pushes completely out of the socket, it’s called dislocation. If it only pushes partially out, it’s called a subluxation. In both cases, the injury stretches or tears fibers in the capsule. It can also damage other parts of the joint. This makes the humeral head more likely to slip out of the glenoid again.

Multidirectional shoulder instability

A serious injury can lead to shoulder instability. Or the problem may happen slowly over time. Causes include:

  • Having loose joints (being "double-jointed").

  • Repeated overhead motions, such as throwing or swimming.

  • Repeated shoulder injuries.

  • Dislocating the shoulder joint. This means the ball is forced out of the socket.

  • Fracturing part of the shoulder joint.

Symptoms of shoulder instability

These can include one or more of the following:

  • Feeling that the shoulder slips out of place.

  • Discomfort or pain when using the shoulder. This often occurs when making an overhead movement, carrying heavy objects, or pushing heavy doors.

  • Shoulder weakness.

  • Catching, popping, or grinding in the joint.

  • Trouble using the shoulder or arm.

Treatment for shoulder instability

The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and improve shoulder function.

  • Physical therapy. This can help restore strength and stability to your shoulder. Some treatments help reduce pain. Physical therapy for this condition often takes several months.

  • Over the counter or prescription medicines. These help relieve pain and swelling. NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are the most common medicines used. Medicines may be prescribed or bought over the counter. They may be given as pills. Or they may be put on the skin as a gel, cream, or patch.

  • Surgery. If physical therapy isn’t enough to heal your shoulder, you may need surgery to repair the tissues that stabilize the joint. This surgery often makes the shoulder tighter than before, so you may lose a small amount of flexibility.

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