The shoulder is a complex and somewhat fragile area, containing three bones, three separate joints, and various muscles, tendons, and ligaments. While soft tissue injuries are common due to the shoulder’s complexity and wide range of motion, fractures of the shoulder bones can and do happen as well. Shoulder fractures are most frequently caused by falls, although they can be the result of direct trauma, such as a blow sustained during contact sports, car accidents, and the like.
Dr. Francis Mendoza, NYC-based orthopaedic surgeon specializing in the treatment of shoulder and elbow conditions, provides an overview of the different types of shoulder fractures, how they are diagnosed and the best treatment for shoulder fractures.
Types of Shoulder Fractures
The shoulder consists of the humerus (the upper arm bone), the clavicle (collarbone) and the scapula (shoulder blade). Any of these bones may sustain a fracture.
The clavicle is the most common location for a shoulder fracture. It’s the most fragile of the shoulder bones, and it doesn’t completely harden until around the age of 20. This makes it more susceptible to injury, and it’s not uncommon for babies to suffer broken clavicles during birth. Children are also prone to clavicle fractures, as are athletes, often after a direct blow or a hard fall onto an outstretched arm. The force of the fall may travel up the arm to the clavicle and result in a fracture.
Fractures of the ball or the neck of the humerus can also occur after a fall onto an outstretched arm. The humerus is a much stronger bone than the clavicle, and this type of fracture is most common in the elderly, especially those with osteoporosis.
Fractures of the scapula are quite rare, and are usually only seen after high-speed car crashes or falls from a great height. The scapula is both extremely mobile and protected by a great deal of muscle, so it takes a massive amount of direct force to fracture it.
Diagnosis of Shoulder Fractures
Shoulder fractures are usually diagnosed through X-rays. Your doctor will examine the injured area for signs such as tenderness and swelling, bruising, and limited range of motion, and will usually order X-rays both to confirm the fracture and to pinpoint its exact location. Occasionally, a CT scan may also be necessary. Knowing the type of fracture that has occurred and its exact location are necessary to prescribe the correct treatment.
Treatment for Shoulder Fractures
Although treatment for shoulder fractures varies depending on which bone is injured and what type of fracture it is, the most common treatment is immobilization with an arm sling. This treatment is used for uncomplicated fractures in which the bones have stayed in their normal anatomical positions.
If you have a displaced fracture, in which the ends of the bone are out of alignment, your doctor will need to move the bones back into their correct positions. Depending on the severity of the displacement, surgery may be necessary to bring them back into alignment and keep them in the proper position.
If you’ve suffered a compound fracture, in which the ends of the bone have pierced the skin, or if the bone has broken into multiple fragments, surgery will likely be necessary. Surgical treatment for shoulder fractures may include using wires, pins, plates, or screws to bring the pieces of bone back together and hold them in position. If the head of the humerus—the “ball” of the ball-and-socket joint—has been crushed, a shoulder replacement may be necessary, but this is an uncommon injury.
Healing of a non-displaced shoulder fracture typically takes around six weeks for children and up to 12 weeks for adults. Once the bones have healed enough to allow motion, you may be advised to undergo physical therapy in order to maximize your recovery.
Shoulder Fracture Treatment in NY
Treatment for shoulder fractures is critical—an improperly healed fracture can result in permanent stiffness and loss of range of motion, or even arthritis. If you’ve suffered a shoulder injury and are experiencing pain, don’t ignore it. Contact our office today to schedule a consultation.