What is a shoulder sprain or strain?

A shoulder sprain or strain is a tear in the shoulder ligaments (sprain) or muscles (strain). The shoulder ligaments are tough bands of tissue that help connect the scapula (shoulder blade), acromion (bony know on scapula), clavicle (collarbone) and sternum (breastbone) to each other in the shoulder joint.

This is not a common injury because the shoulder muscles and ligaments are strong.

Causes of shoulder strain or sprain

Typically a shoulder sprain or strain can occur when backward force is placed on the arm and stretches the shoulder ligaments. This motion causes tearing of ligaments or muscles in the front of the shoulder. Other causes of a shoulder sprain or strain include:

  • Direct fall on the shoulder
  • Car accidents
  • Sports injuries where the shoulder is directly impacted
  • Blow to the shoulder blade

Risk factors for shoulder strain or sprain

There are a variety of factors that contribute to shoulder strains or sprains including:

  • Sports — people who participate in sports that require repetitive motion in the shoulder are at higher risk for a shoulder sprain or strain.
  • Fatigue — you are more likely to overextend your shoulder when you are fatigued.
  • Improper warm-up — people who do not properly warm up before physical activity are more susceptible to shoulder sprains or strains.

Symptoms of shoulder strain or sprain

Shoulder sprain or strain symptoms depend on the severity of the injury and can range from mild to severe.

Symptoms can include:

  • Pain at the front of the joint
  • Tenderness when pressing on the area of the injury
  • Swelling that develops rapidly
  • Inability to move the shoulder
  • Instability in the shoulder joint (severe shoulder sprains or strains)

Diagnosis of shoulder strain or sprain

A shoulder sprain or strain can be diagnosed in a full exam with your doctor.

An MRI may be necessary to determine the severity and location of the strain or sprain.

Treatment of shoulder strain or sprain

Most shoulder strains or sprains can be treated with nonsurgical treatments.

Nonsurgical treatments could include:

  • Rest
  • Sling
  • Ice
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Physical therapy and rehabilitation — your physician may order physical therapy to strengthen the shoulder and improve the range of motion.
  • Electrotherapy treatments — ultrasound or laser treatments that can help to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • PRP therapy — PRP therapy takes a patient’s blood and puts it through a centrifugation process to make the platelets more concentrated and then injected back into the patient in the affected area to accelerate healing.

Recovery from shoulder strain or sprain

For a mild to moderate shoulder sprain or strain, you may be able to return to your normal activities within one to two weeks.

Moderate sprains or strains may take as long as six to eight weeks before you can resume day-to-day shoulder activities.

Severe strains or sprains may feel better within four to six weeks, but they need three to five months of rehabilitation before resuming full shoulder activity. This is especially important for athletes who participate in contact sports because they have a higher risk of injuring the shoulder again.

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