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AC joint dislocation: Types, Symptoms and Treatment

A Complete Guide on AC Joint Dislocation: Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

Acromioclavicular (AC) joint dislocation is a common injury that occurs at the junction of the collarbone (clavicle) and the shoulder blade (scapula). Several traumatic events can cause AC joint displacement, including contact sports, falls, or accidents. Understanding the types, symptoms, and treatment options is crucial to treating AC joint displacement.

AC joint dislocation, common among athletes and fitness enthusiasts, causes shoulder pain and deformity. It results from trauma, like falls or collisions. Symptoms include pain, swelling, limited shoulder movement, and a noticeable bump over the joint. Treatment varies by severity: Grade I and II dislocations often respond to rest, ice, slings, and physical therapy. Severe Grade III-VI dislocations may require surgery to restore joint alignment, including ligament reconstruction. 

It is crucial for athletes, fitness trainers, and anyone experiencing shoulder pain to be aware of a condition like this, as it aids in understanding, managing, and preventing AC joint dislocations for better long-term shoulder health and performance.

AC Joint Dislocation: What You Need to Know

AC joint dislocation occurs when the collarbone separates from the shoulder blade due to trauma, commonly in sports. The AC (acromioclavicular) joint connects the collarbone (clavicle) to the shoulder blade (scapula). It provides stability and allows a range of shoulder movements, which is crucial for arm function and mobility. In the case of a dislocation, symptoms include pain, swelling, and shoulder deformity. Treatment varies from conservative approaches like rest and physical therapy for mild cases to surgery for severe dislocations. Preventing AC joint injuries involves proper sports protection, shoulder strengthening, and physical therapy for individuals at risk for dislocation.

Types of Ac Joint Dislocation

Acromioclavicular (AC) joint dislocations are categorized based on severity. Grade I is a mild sprain, Grade II involves partial AC ligament tears, Grade III is a complete tear, and Grades IV, V, and VI represent progressively severe dislocations.

Type I - III (Surgery not needed)

In Type I to III acromioclavicular (AC) joint dislocations, surgery is usually not necessary. Type I involves mild joint sprains, Type II entails partial AC ligament tears, and Type III signifies complete ligament rupture, causing visible deformity. These injuries often respond well to non-surgical treatment approaches. Rest, immobilization with a sling, and physical therapy are commonly recommended. Gradual rehabilitation helps restore shoulder function and strength, aiding full recovery.

Type IV-VI (Surgery Needed)

In Type IV to VI acromioclavicular (AC) joint dislocations, surgery is often necessary due to the severity of the injury. Type IV is characterized by a complete AC ligament tear and disruption of the coracoclavicular (CC) ligament, leading to a significant deformity. Type V and VI dislocations are more extreme, with the clavicle pushed behind the acromion process. Surgical options may include ligament reconstruction, reduction of the dislocated joint, or stabilization procedures to realign the AC joint. Surgery is essential to restore joint stability, alleviate pain, and prevent long-term complications, with post-operative rehabilitation playing a vital role in recovery.

Symptoms of AC Joint Dislocation

Symptoms of acromioclavicular (AC) joint dislocation are distinctive and typically occur after trauma or injury to the shoulder region. Swelling, tenderness, and bruising may develop around the AC joint, causing discomfort and visible changes in the shoulder's appearance.

Another common symptom of AC joint dislocation is a noticeable bump or deformity over the joint. This bump is a vital indicator of the injury's severity. The range of motion in the shoulder is often restricted. In severe cases, the dislocation can lead to nerve or blood vessel compression or injury, causing numbness, tingling, or discoloration in the affected arm. 

Causes of AC Joint Dislocation

Acromioclavicular (AC) joint dislocations primarily result from traumatic events involving direct impact or forces applied to the shoulder. These incidents often occur in contact sports like football, falls during activities such as cycling, or high-impact collisions, including motor vehicle accidents. Additionally, workplace injuries are common in occupations that require heavy lifting or overhead work. Recognizing these common causes is crucial for preventive measures, helping athletes, workers, and individuals at risk of shoulder trauma take precautions to reduce the likelihood of AC joint dislocations.

Treatment of AC Joint Dislocation

Treatment of AC joint dislocation ranges from conservative management (rest, immobilization, and physical therapy) for mild cases to surgery (ligament repair or reconstruction) for severe dislocations.

AC Joint Dislocation - Conservative Treatment

Conservative treatment for AC joint dislocation is often considered where the severity of the injury is less. It involves rest, immobilization with a sling, and physical therapy.

RICE Method for Healing

The RICE method is a standard approach to facilitate healing and manage injuries. It stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Rest involves minimizing movement and strain on the injured area. Ice helps reduce swelling and pain. Compression with a bandage provides support and minimizes swelling. Elevation, by raising the injured limb, further reduces swelling and promotes faster recovery.

Physical Therapy for Recovery

Physical therapy is a critical component of recovery for AC (acromioclavicular) joint injuries. It focuses on regaining shoulder strength, mobility, and stability. Therapists tailor exercises to the individual's needs, gradually increasing intensity. Therapy also aids in preventing recurrent dislocations and ensures a complete, functional recovery, making it a critical part of the rehabilitation process for AC joint injuries.

Medications and Pain Management

Pain management for AC (acromioclavicular) joint injuries may involve over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce both pain and inflammation. In more severe cases, prescription pain medications may be necessary for short-term use. It's crucial to follow medical advice and dosage instructions. 

When Surgery is Necessary

Surgery is typically necessary for severe AC (acromioclavicular) joint injuries, mainly when there's significant ligament damage, joint displacement, or deformity that cannot be effectively managed through conservative treatments.

Factors Leading to Surgery

Surgery for AC (acromioclavicular) joint injury becomes necessary when conservative treatments fail to restore joint stability or in severe cases where there's extensive ligament damage, marked joint displacement, or significant deformity. Factors like persistent pain, dysfunction, and interference with daily activities may also prompt surgical intervention to realign the joint and ensure better long-term shoulder function and stability.

Types of Surgical Procedures

Surgical procedures for AC (acromioclavicular) joint injuries can include ligament repair or reconstruction. In ligament repair, torn ligaments are sutured back together, while reconstruction involves using grafts to replace damaged ligaments. Surgical fixation methods, such as screws, pins, or synthetic materials, may also stabilize the joint. The choice of procedure depends on the injury's severity and individual patient factors.

Recovery Expectations and Tips

Recovery from AC joint injury varies with its severity. In milder cases, expect recovery in a few weeks with rest, therapy, and a gradual return to activities. Severe injuries may require several months. Gradually reintroduce activities, focusing on shoulder strengthening and stability to prevent reinjury.

Prevention of AC Joint Dislocation

Simple techniques and regular physical therapy can help prevent AC Joint dislocation. Preventing AC joint dislocation involves:

  • Using proper protective gear in contact sports.
  • Practicing safe techniques.
  • Maintaining shoulder strength and stability through exercises and avoiding risky activities.

Strengthening Exercises

Strengthening exercises are essential in preventing and recovering from AC joint injuries. Focus on exercises that target the shoulder and upper body, such as shoulder presses, rows, and push-ups. Resistance bands and weights can be used to increase intensity. Proper technique and gradual progression are essential.

Sports Techniques

Athletes should emphasize safe landing techniques to minimize falls or impacts. In contact sports, correct tackling, blocking, and bracing methods can help avoid unnecessary shoulder stress. Additionally, using appropriate protective gear like shoulder pads and helmets can provide an extra layer of protection to prevent AC joint injuries during athletic activities.

Protective Gear

Appropriate protective gear prevents AC joint injuries during sports and physical activities. This gear includes shoulder pads, helmets, and other protective equipment to cushion and shield the shoulder and clavicle region. It is a vital barrier against impacts and falls, reducing the risk of injury and ensuring safer participation in contact sports or high-impact activities.

Don't play until fully recovered

For individuals recovering from AC joint injuries, it's crucial to avoid rushing back into physical activities or sports. Returning before being fully recovered can lead to reinjury and prolonged healing times. Gradual reintegration with the proper strengthening and rehabilitation is essential to ensure a successful and lasting recovery.

Experience expert dislocation care at Physiotattva

At Physiotattva, you'll receive expert care for dislocations, including AC joint injuries. Our dedicated team of professionals is experienced in providing comprehensive assessment, treatment, and rehabilitation. We offer tailored solutions to ensure a full recovery, whether through non-surgical approaches like physiotherapy and pain management or surgical interventions. Your well-being and return to optimal function are our top priorities, making Physiotattva your trusted destination for dislocation care and rehabilitation. Book your session today.


What is AC joint dislocation?

AC (acromioclavicular) joint dislocation is when the collarbone separates from the shoulder blade, often due to trauma or injury.

How long does it take for AC joint dysfunction to heal?

Recovery time for AC joint dysfunction varies but can take several weeks to months, depending on severity.

What is the best treatment for AC joint separation?

Treatment for AC joint separation varies, with rest, therapy, and surgery.

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