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What is a Shoulder Sprain?

By Nishnaz
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

A shoulder sprain is the stretching, twisting, or partial tearing of the ligaments of the shoulder joint. Ligaments are tough bands of connective fibrous tissue that join bones together to form a joint. A tear in the ligaments of any of the joints of the shoulder could result in a shoulder sprain.

Contrary to what most people think, the shoulder joint is not formed from the upper arm bone, or humerus, and the shoulder blade, or scapula, alone. The shoulder is in fact constituted of three different joints: between the upper arm bone and the shoulder blade; the top of the shoulder blade, called the acromion, and the collar bone, or the clavicle; and between the collar bone and the breast bone, called the sternum. The joint of the humerus and the collar blade is the glenohumeral joint, which we commonly know as the shoulder joint. The joint composed of the upper portion of the shoulder blade and the collar bone, called the acromioclavicular joint, and that between the collar bone and the breast bone, which is called the sternoclavicular joint, also form parts of the shoulder joint.

Generally, most cases of shoulder sprain occur due to tears in the ligament between the shoulder blade and the collar bone, called the acromioclavicular joint. A tear in the strongly bound ligaments of the acromioclavicular joint often results from strong direct blows to the shoulder or trauma or shoulder injury due to a fall. This kind of shoulder sprain commonly occurs in athletes and sportsmen.

Sprains of the sternoclavicular joint are less common, as this joint is held even tighter than the acromioclavicular joint. Injuries to the ligaments of this joint commonly occur due to direct impact on the chest. This can occur in a vehicle accident, when the driver hits the steering wheel hard. This kind of sprain is also seen in football players who get hit directly on the shoulder.

Depending on the severity of injury, a shoulder sprain is classified into one of up to seven grades by doctors. Most sprains are rated I - III, while higher grades of sprain denote intense swelling and severe dislocation of the collar bone. The general symptoms of shoulder sprain include tenderness and pain around the tip of the collar bone or the midline area of the chest. The contour of the shoulder can become visibly distorted due to the swelling, and movement of the shoulder becomes increasingly painful.

Treatment for a shoulder sprain is usually relatively simple. The application of cold packs or ice for 15 to 20 minutes is generally recommended to bring down the swelling and pain. Further treatment for shoulder sprains include anti-inflammatory medication, wearing of a brace or sling, and shoulder strengthening exercises after recovery.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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