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What Happens When Your AC Joint is Separated?

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man playing footballThe shoulder joint has the greatest range of motion of any joint, and it’s prone to injury or problems as a result. The AC joint, located over the top of your shoulder, can be separated in a sports injury, project around the house, or a fall.

In this blog, Dr. Francis X. Mendoza, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon, will explain more about AC joint separations.

What is an AC joint injury?

The acromioclavicular (AC) joint is formed between the collarbone (clavicle) and the tip of your shoulder blade (scapula). You can feel it by putting your hand on top of your shoulder and locating a bony bump.

You may sometimes hear an AC joint separation referred to as a shoulder separation, but it doesn’t actually involve the shoulder. Instead, it occurs when the collarbone separates from the shoulder blade.

AC joint injuries range in severity from a slight dislocation to a complete separation, and treatments can range from at-home treatments to AC joint surgery.

A slight dislocation is the most common type and causes the AC ligament to be stretched or partially torn. An AC joint may also be partially dislocated, with a completely torn AC ligament.

In some cases, the AC joint is completely separated. The AC ligament, the coracoclavicular ligaments and the capsule around the joint are torn. Without the ligaments to support it, the clavicle pushes up and causes a bump on the shoulder.

What are its symptoms?

The symptoms you may experience with an AC joint injury depend on the severity of your injury.

If you have a slight dislocation, you may have the following:

  • Tenderness when you touch the joint
  • Bruising
  • Minor pain when you more your arm

If your AC joint is partially dislocated, you may experience the following:

  • Moderate to severe pain
  • Swelling
  • Pain when you move your arm
  • Clavicle moves when it’s pushed
  • Painful to the touch

Finally, if you have a completely separated AC joint, you may have the following symptoms:

  • Tendency to support your elbow and hold your arm close to your side
  • Arm hurts with any type of movement
  • Popping sound when you move your joint
  • Swelling
  • A bump on top of your shoulder, or the outer end of your collarbone may look out of place
  • Unstable joint

What are the causes of a separated AC joint?

An AC joint separation is most often caused by a fall. It can happen during football or another contact sport, a slip on the ice, or a tumble over the handlebars of your bike.

In addition, the following can make an AC separation more likely:

  • Biochemical or hormonal imbalances
  • Diabetes
  • Being immobilized for a long period of time
  • Previous surgery

What are the treatment options?

The type of treatment your doctor may recommend depends on the severity of your injury. For less severe injuries, you may need to use a sling to help support your shoulder for a few days to a week.

You can rest your shoulder and arm, apply ice to painful areas and take a pain reliever such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium.

You may also undergo physical therapy to help make your shoulder stronger, more flexible and extend its range of motion. In addition, this can help prevent frozen shoulder, a condition in which your range of shoulder motion becomes greatly limited. Your doctor may use tape to support the joint’s position, and he or she may also recommend physiotherapy to help reduce pain and inflammation.

As pain starts to decrease, massage, mobility exercises and load-bearing exercises may be added.

In the case of more severe tears, AC joint surgery may be necessary if pain persists or if there’s a severe deformity. A surgeon can trim back your collarbone so it doesn’t rub against the acromion, a bony projection on the shoulder blade. Ligaments can also be reconstructed to help stabilize and strengthen the joint.

Where can I find treatment in NYC?

Dr. Francis X. Mendoza is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who has served as the Director of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

He regularly teaches advanced surgical techniques to residents and practicing orthopedic surgeons and combines his expertise with a patient-centered approach. Dr. Mendoza has been recognized as a top shoulder surgeon in New York City by consumer groups and is dedicated to providing the most effective treatments while ensuring that patients understand their condition as well as their options, including possible AC joint surgery.

To find out more about AC joint surgery and to make an appointment for an examination and treatment, contact Dr. Mendoza’s office today!

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