Shoulder fracture, sprain and strain

Man running with shoulder pain

​The shoulder is a complex joint made up of three bones: the scapula (shoulder blade), the humerus (upper arm bone) and the clavicle (collarbone). The most common shoulder injuries are fractures, sprains and strains. A broken bone, sprain or strain of the shoulder may have similar symptoms but they are different injuries that require specific care.

Shoulder fracture

A shoulder fracture occurs when there is a partial or total break in one or more of the shoulder bones, usually caused by a direct blow to the shoulder. 

Symptoms include:

  • Severe pain that prevents you from moving your arm or shoulder

  • Pain that occurs when you breathe deeply or move the shoulder blade

  • Visible deformity of the shoulder 

Shoulder sprain and strains 

Sprains and strains are similar but affect different parts of the shoulder. A sprain means a ligament (connects bone to bone) is stretched or torn. This is sometimes called a shoulder separation. A strain is the stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon in the shoulder. 

Symptoms of a shoulder sprain are:

  • Bruising

  • Feeling a “pop” in the joint at the time of the injury

  • Pain

  • Swelling

  • Symptoms of a shoulder strain include:

  • Cramping 

  • Limited movements

  • Muscle spasms and/or weakness 

  • Pain 

  • Swelling 

Shoulder fracture, sprain and strain diagnosis

Your doctor may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose a shoulder fracture, sprain or strain:

  • A physical exam—to assess a patient’s shoulder pain, swelling and range of motion. 

  • X-ray—an imaging test used to confirm or rule out a fracture in the shoulder.

  • Computed tomography (CT) scans—uses X-rays to form images inside the shoulder.

  • MRI scans—uses magnetic fields and radiofrequency pulses to produce detailed pictures of organs and other internal body structures.

Shoulder fracture, sprain and strain treatment 

Depending on your diagnosis, you may need one or more of the following treatments:

  • Brace or sling—wearing a device to stabilize the injured shoulder so it can heal.

  • Anti-inflammatory and pain medications—medicines taken for pain relief.

  • Cold therapy—applying ice packs to the shoulder several times a day to reduce pain and swelling. 

  • Physical therapy—hands-on treatment to loosen muscles and joints, decrease pain, and exercises to restore mobility and strength in the shoulder.

  • Rest—limiting movement in the shoulder while it is healing. 

  • Surgery—in some cases, surgery may be needed to repair a broken bone or ruptured muscle, tendon or ligament.   

At The Christ Hospital Health Network, our team of orthopedic specialists has extensive experience diagnosing and treating shoulder fractures, sprains and strains. We take the time to diagnose your symptoms and recommend the appropriate treatment. 

Find an orthopedic specialist near you.