Chronic shoulder dislocation, subluxation and shoulder instability

Ross A. Hauser, MD., Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C

If you are reading this article, you are probably wrestling with a decision to have shoulder surgery. While the surgical option for chronic shoulder dislocation is something that may not be the first choice in your mind, you may be thinking anything has got to be better than my shoulder popping out all the time.

So you went to the surgeon’s office. There you may have been told that the conservative care, non-surgical option of exercise and physical therapy has at best a 50% chance of helping you and this is a long-term treatment set. If you are active in sports or do physically demanding work, long-term physical therapy may not be the best option for you. On the other hand, surgery may not be the answer for you either.

This article will present options and treatments. As with any medical treatment, some people will find great success in some treatments, some people will not have with others.

Dislocated shoulder surgery recovery time

One of the biggest hesitations patients have to surgery may be the extended recovery time. Possibly up to six months of surgical recovery time and the risk of the need for revision or secondary surgery and accompanying muscle atrophy on the surgical site. If you are self-employed, keeping your arm in a sling 4 – 8 weeks is not going to be realistic for you, nor is three month wait before you can swing a hammer. But anything has to be better than a chronically dislocating shoulder, even surgery. There may be an option for you.

In this article, we will explore non-surgical and surgical options.

Article outline:

Part 1: Conservative Care Options
Part 2: Surgical options

If you look at your guidelines sheet that you may have been given at your orthopedist center or physical therapists’ office of how to manage your shoulder after it fell out of the socket, you start to understand that nothing in the guidelines suggests any long-term resolution of your problem. With the possible exception of how to try to prevent this from happening again (usually does happen again) and suggesting an ultimate surgery.

Conservative treatment guidelines

Once you are through the immediate reaction to your shoulder popping out of place, then the long-term answers are suggested:

At the orthopedist or the physical therapists, there is a brief talk about repairing the shoulder ligaments that cause this problem in your shoulder. Yet they will acknowledge that the ligaments are the big problem. Unfortunately, surgery or physical therapy does not have a good remedy for this problem. Injections may be the answer.

In this video Ross Hauser, MD and one of our patients, William, discuss his chronically dislocating shoulder.

Research and clinical observations on chronic shoulder dislocations treatments.

The main cause of chronic shoulder dislocations are chronic shoulder dislocations. This is not a play on words, repeated chronic shoulder dislocation weakens already significantly damaged connective tissue in the shoulder. The more shoulder dislocation you have, the weaker your shoulder gets, the more chronic shoulder dislocations you will have. 

These are questions we may ask new patients about their  previous visits to the orthopedist to help us and them understand what is going on in his/her shoulder:

Was your past dislocation(s) a shoulder subluxation? In a shoulder dislocation, the ball of the shoulder pops completely out of the shoulder socket. In a shoulder subluxation, the ball of the shoulder does not come completely out of the shoulder joint capsule. It can be also called a partial shoulder dislocation.

Are your dislocations the result of a traumatic injury? Patients need to be made aware that in first-time dislocations there is usually enough trauma and significant soft tissue damage that future and chronic instability and dislocations and a long medical history of shoulder problems will occur. This is because the shoulder ligaments, tendons, and cartilage are usually significantly damaged in traumatic shoulder dislocation.

Are your dislocations the result of overuse, repetitive strain injuries? For some people, chronic shoulder dislocation and subluxation just happen without there being an initial traumatic injury. These are typical laborers with physically demanding jobs like landscapers, machinery operators, firefighters, and construction workers to name but a few. It can also happen in musicians, especially drummers. Many of the patients we see are athletes or people who work out a lot. Shoulder wear and tear instability that can lead to chronic dislocations are typically seen in volleyball players, tennis players, swimmers, workout enthusiasts, and weight trainers.

Are your dislocations the result of past arthroscopic surgeries to fix your shoulder?
For someone who has not had surgery for their shoulder instability, this last question will certainly cause concern? How does the surgery that was supposed to fix the problem, make the problem worse?

The image below depicts some of the shoulder problems that would indicate shoulder instability or excessive shoulder joint motion.

These tell take signs of ligament damage include:

Chronic shoulder instability caused by anterior shoulder dislocation treatment: Immobilization

This is how the treatment of dislocations can cause future dislocations. Many readers will probably recognize their own story here.

Initial traumatic shoulder dislocation is almost always seen in an emergency room because of the almost immediate recognition by sight of some type of clear and gross anatomical defect. This portion of our article focuses on the aftermath and treatment recommendations for someone treated in the emergency room or urgent care center after they had their first dislocation.

Anterior simply means the front. An anterior shoulder dislocation occurs in approximately 95 percent of all shoulder dislocation cases. In this dislocation, the anterior static shoulder stabilizers the soft tissue and muscles of the shoulder are injured and sometimes torn away from the bone. Your doctor may have talked to you about these structures.

They are the:

Other damage:


The research we just cited was from 1987, thirty-six years ago. That 1987 research was not only relevant for us to use in this article it was also cited by published research as recently as 2022.

Comparisons in shoulder instability treatment: Physical therapy and surgery

In the past thirty-six years numerous papers have been published discussing the various treatment methods to help a patient with chronic shoulder instability. In 2017, research hospital doctors in Spain publishing in The Open Orthopaedics Journal, write of the complexities in treating a patient who has multidirectional instability of the shoulder. (2)

Complexities include hyperlaxity (very to extremely loose shoulder), anatomical problems, muscle imbalance and possible traumatic incidents in each patient.

First treatment: Physical therapy

Next treatment after three months: Surgery

Comment: The warning is that all these things may be happening at once. Below the research finishes with the recognition that if you fix one shoulder problem, you may make one of the other shoulder problems worse.

The paper continues:

While looking at all these possible candidates for shoulder instability, the Spanish team wrote of the difficulties in making these surgeries work.

“shoulder laxity and instability.” The correct approach to the management of failed stabilization procedures (surgery) has not been yet defined.

Doctors at the Department of Orthopaedics, Catholic University, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, A. Gemelli University Hospital,  in Rome, wrote in the medical journal Joints (4) the following observations about shoulder laxity and instability:

Generalized joint laxity (looseness) and shoulder instability are common conditions that exhibit a wide spectrum of different clinical forms and may coexist in the same patient.

Laxity is a physiological condition (a disruption in the regular movement of the shoulder) that may predispose to the development of shoulder instability.

A high prevalence of generalized joint laxity has been identified in patients with multidirectional instability of the shoulder. Multidirectional instability is defined as symptomatic instability in two or more directions.

The diagnosis and treatment of this condition are still challenging because of complexities in its classification and etiology.

These complexities are compounded when multidirectional instability and laxity exist in the same patient. With an improved understanding of the clinical symptoms and physical examination findings, a successful strategy for conservative and/or surgical treatments can be developed.

Conservative treatment is the first-line option. If it fails, different surgical options are available.

The correct approach to the management of failed stabilization procedures has not been yet defined.

A 2019 study (5) was launched by a research team to further these 1987 findings and look at immobilization following shoulder dislocation: Here is a brief summary of this research:

“The treatment of shoulder dislocation can be divided into operation and conservative therapy. Surgical treatment is used only for complex dislocation or failure of conservative reduction. Therefore, conservative treatment is the main measure. Conservative treatment is usually followed by internal or external rotation fixation after reduction. (Immobilzation after your shoulder is popped back in). Some studies have shown that internal rotation fixation can reduce the recurrence rate compared with external rotation fixation, while others have the opposite results. . . Consequently, it is necessary to conduct a systematic review of immobilization in external rotation vs internal rotation on shoulder dislocation with the increasing of related studies in recent years.”

This study is asking the same question more than 30 years later. Is immobilization good or bad?

When certain shoulder pain conservative treatments fail, certain shoulder surgeries would be advisable.

A 2021 study from the European Clinic of Sports Traumatology and Orthopedics (6) however does suggest when certain conservative treatments fail, certain surgeries would be advisable. Some people do have very successful shoulder instability surgeries. These are not the people we see at our center. We see the people with a long history of subluxation, sometimes surgery, all the time instability. The focused keywords of this research was Bankart surgery, Latarjet and arthrolatarjet; glenoid deficiency; shoulder arthroscopy; shoulder instability.

As you are reading this article you may already be aware of what a Bankart procedure, surgery or sometimes called Bankart shoulder repair procedure. The concept being that the ligaments of the shoulder are re-attached or shortened to tighten their group on the shoulder bones.

The Latarjet and arthrolatarjet procedure may have been recommended to you if you had many dislocations and the constant popping our and popping back in of your shoulder has worn away the bone of the shoulder socket.  To keep the shoulder in place, bone or more precisely the coracoid structure on the shoulder blade is removed and reattached at the shoulder socket to hold the ball of the joint in place.

Again, for many people these procedures are very successful. These are not the people we see in our center. We see the people who tell stories of initial shoulder dislocation and subsequent and constant subluxation and dislocation even after surgery. So much so, that they were told to stop all activities that may dislocate their shoulder until a more permanent answer could be arrived at.

The surgery controversy again

Let’s explore a paper from April 2019 published by a combined research team from the Mayo Clinic and The Ohio State University. It was published in the Journal of clinical orthopaedics and trauma.(7)

Here is what the researchers published: “Optimal management of primary anterior instability of the shoulder remains a controversial topic. Traditionally, nonoperative management has been the treatment of choice, as a subset of patients with isolated anterior instability will not have any further instability episodes. Operating on all first-time instability episodes would, therefore, induce operations on a number of patients who may have been asymptomatic without surgery.

In certain segments of the population, however, the risk of recurrent dislocation is at or above 80% (young, male, overhead/collision athletes). Furthermore, recurrent instability may increase the degree of labral injury, cartilage injury, and bone loss, eventually compromising the outcome of the stabilization procedure. This has pushed a subset of surgeons to discuss the outcomes of primary stabilization of the shoulder in young patients at high risk for recurrence.

The goal of this study was to assess the outcomes of surgical shoulder stabilization completed acutely, after a single instability episode, in comparison to those stabilized after recurrent instability. (The) primary outcome measure was recurrence of instability (as measured by recurrent dislocations or subluxations). Secondary outcomes that were analyzed included revision surgery, complications, and functional outcome measures.”

In brief, surgeons started debating whether it was advisable to send patients to surgery after their first shoulder dislocation. Those in favor cited that if you did not repair the shoulder instability, this would lead to recurrent and chronic dislocation as well as the continued destruction of the shoulder joint to the point of advanced osteoarthritis. The researchers of this study thenexplored whether surgery after a primary dislocation gave the patients better instability and delayed or prevented subsequent shoulder damage. The result?

“This systematic review failed to demonstrate a statistically significant difference in recurrence rates in patients with surgical stabilization after their primary instability episode compared to patients after multiple instability episodes, although a small benefit was shown. No conclusion could be made on the rate of complications, or functional outcomes with either approach or further shoulder injury with recurrent instability. Further high quality trials to evaluate the results of primary and delayed stabilization are necessary to help make better treatment decisions for this group of patients and to better inform patients of their risks, complications and expected outcomes post-operatively.”

In brief, the results of this study did not suggest surgery after primary dislocation was any better than surgery after multiple dislocations. As other research points out, the surgery itself, at any point is inconclusive.

Chronic shoulder instability caused by ALPSA Lesions – A Type of Anterior Shoulder Dislocation

Recurrent anterior shoulder dislocation and instability is sometimes associated with an ALPSA (anterior labroligamentous periosteal sleeve avulsion) lesion or labral tear.

The difference between a Bankart lesion and ALPSA lesion is that both have labrum displacement, in the ALPSA lesion the anterior scapular periosteum (the membrane covering the bones which contain fibroblasts and osteoblasts – healing and building cells of cartilage and bone) tears off as well  allowing the labroligamentous (the labrum, ligaments and connective tissue) structures to also be displaced.

People with ALPSA tears tend to have a high number of recurrent dislocations, because of the instability and weakness of the anterior inferior glenohumeral ligament. ALPSA tears are also associated with larger sized Hill-Sachs lesions.

Those with ALPSA tears not only suffer from recurrent dislocations but high surgical failure rates.

Arthroscopic ALPSA repair failure is quite high compared to repair of Bankart lesions. In a study comparing ALPSA lesions with Bankart lesions and postoperative recurrence rates after arthroscopic capsulolabral repair- the ALPSA group had more than double the recurrence rate. In addition, according to a study from researchers in South Korea, the ALPSA group presented a significant postoperative loss of external rotation after capsulolabral repair.(8) While surgery can treat the anterior dislocation effectively in certain types of lesions, post-operative pain, lengthy rehabilitation, and a chance of not returning to a previous level of activity, work or sports participation are reasons to consider conservative injection treatments as an alternative to standard treatment approaches.

Research: Surgical failure related to damage to the subscapularis tendon and ALPSA tears

Medical University researchers in Turkey published a study to help their fellow surgeons predict which patients would have continued shoulder instability and dislocation following surgery. This study was published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine (9). How would the researchers predict which patients would have poorer outcomes after surgery? They would look for damage to the subscapularis tendon.

The subscapularis tendon attaches the subscapularis muscle of the rotator cuff to the humerus, the long bone that connects the shoulder to the elbow. When this tendon is damaged, the shoulder loses strength in the subscapularis muscle. This will cause shoulder weakness, shoulder instability, and degenerative damage to the shoulder.

These surgeons had the idea that multiple subscapularis tendon sign (tests to determine tendon damage) could identify a possible risk factor for the recurrence of shoulder instability after anterior stabilization.

This is what they said:

“A thin, weak, or lax anterior shoulder joint capsule may be associated with anterior shoulder instability. In this case, the multiple subscapularis tendon sign may have some role in anterior shoulder instability or some potential negative effect on recurrence after shoulder instability surgery. It is either an anatomic variation or a pathological condition that cannot be fixed with plication (surgical folding over of the tendon attachment), which is performed for capsular abnormalities. It is our opinion that the multiple subscapularis tendon sign is a demonstration of the insufficiency of the anterior joint capsule.”

This is what patient examination revealed:

CONCLUSION: “Considering the low success rates of anterior capsulolabral repair in patients participating in overhead or contact sports, especially when an ALPSA lesion is present, encountering the multiple subscapularis tendon sign (damage) during surgery in this at-risk group may be an indicator for the surgeon to choose the surgical procedure more carefully.

Option: Prolotherapy injections

Prolotherapy injections directed at the anterior shoulder capsule and the insertions of the middle and inferior glenohumeral ligaments will increase joint strength and allow pain-free motion through the wide range of movement in overhead throwing sports.

Once the pain has been reduced, a gradual return to one’s previous level of activity can be expected. Substantial improvement may be noted in as few as one to two Prolotherapy treatments, and the scar tissue from surgery can be avoided. There are other advantages to Prolotherapy over surgery for shoulder instability.

In this video, a general demonstration of Prolotherapy and PRP treatment is given for a patient with repeated shoulder dislocations

Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C narrates the video and is the practitioner giving the treatment:

Doctors need to pay attention to the shoulder ligaments

Doctors at the Autonomous University of Barcelona writing in the Journal of Orthopaedics and Traumatology examined the use of surgery for acromioclavicular joint instability. What they found was a very strong need to pay attention to the shoulder ligaments.

“Several surgical strategies for the management of patients with chronic and symptomatic acromioclavicular joint instability have been described. The range of possibilities includes anatomical and non-anatomical techniques, open and arthroscopy-assisted procedures, and biological and synthetic grafts, (for ligament reconstruction).

Surgical management of chronic acromioclavicular joint instability should involve the reconstruction of the torn ligaments because it is accepted that from three weeks after the injury, these structures may lack healing potential.”(10)

In March 2020, (11) research lead by the Steadman Philippon Research Institute and published in the journal Orthopedic research and reviews also suggested that the shoulder ligaments play an important role in future dislocations

“Whereas the majority of acromioclavicular joint dislocations can be treated nonoperatively with a trial of immobilization, pain medication, cryotherapy, and physiotherapy, there are patients that do not respond well to conservative management and may require surgical treatment. Identifying and treating these patients according to the type and chronicity of AC joint dislocation is paramount. To date, a myriad of surgical techniques have been proposed to address unstable AC joint dislocations and are indicative of the uncertainty that exists in optimal management of these injuries. Historically research has focused on the restoration of the coracoclavicular ligament complex. However, recently the importance of the acromioclavicular capsule and ligaments has been emphasized.

This paper concentrated on ligament reconstruction as a vital part of shoulder surgery: In this regard, the researchers noted: “Treating acute and chronic acromioclavicular joint injuries is still a challenging task for orthopedic surgeons. Considering these injuries mostly affect younger patients, long-term consequences involving cosmesis and shoulder dysfunction are not yet well understood, and therefore must be anticipated. The myriad of existing (surgical) techniques is indicative of the uncertainty regarding this topic and a gold standard has not yet been determined. However, when diagnosed correctly and treated accordingly, the results are overall satisfactory.”

The acromioclavicular joint has a disk.

The acromioclavicular joint has a disk. The disk provides cushioning similar to that of a knee meniscus. As like the meniscus, the AC disk eventually starts to flatten out as we age. Like the knee the shoulder has its ligaments that provides stability, when there is instability, degenerative wear and tear can wear out the AC disk.

A March 2022 study in The American journal of sports medicine (12) examined how degenerative wear to the AC disk may cause the disk to be a potential source of pain in AC joint injuries. The researchers observed: “Injuries of the acromioclavicular joint are common shoulder injuries that often lead to pain and dysfunction of the affected shoulder. Regardless of operative or nonoperative treatment, a relatively large number of patients remain symptomatic and experience pain. However, the specific source of persistent pain in the ACJ remains ambiguous.” In cadaver studies, the researchers where able to determine that nerve fibers within the intra-articular disk of the acromioclavicular joint, recorded pain from the disk and the disk itself could be an independent source of pain after injury and thus a possible explanation for recalcitrant pain after treatment.

Over 160 different surgical techniques described in the literature for acromioclavicular joint injury. Do any of them work? Ask the surgeons.

In the May 2019 edition of the medical journal Arthroscopy (13) researchers from the University Hospital Regensburg and Technical University of Munich in Germany made these observations regarding the confusion that surgery brings to acute acromioclavicular joint injury and the importance of treating and repairing ligaments.

“Over the past decade, the interest in acromioclavicular (AC) joint research has experienced a revolutionary increase. Biomechanical and anatomic studies have been carried out to investigate and obtain a better understanding of the function of this joint. The reason for this huge investigational effort is the fact that we do not have any gold standard for the treatment, diagnosis, or follow-up of patients with acute or chronic AC joint injuries.

This is reflected by the huge number of over 160 different surgical techniques described in the literature. . . Because of this wide variety, it is hard and nearly impossible to compare clinical data.

Within the past 5 years, we have focused not only on the vertical instability but also, more and more, on the horizontal instability and tried to understand the rotational component of this joint with the importance of scapulothoracic motion (very simply the ability to raise your shoulders as in shrugging your shoulders or the ability to reach out with your arm and pull something back or away from you).”

The researchers of this editorial concluded that: “We have changed our practice in the past few years in line with the newly derived data, by addressing the coracoclavicular ligaments as well as the AC capsule to restore horizontal and vertical stability but also allow for physiological rotation and movement.”

Simply, whatever repair you decide on, it is best to try to achieve nature’s original design. Something that many surgeries cannot do.

Recurrent dislocations in young and adolescent patients

A March 2023 study in the journal Arthroscopy (14) lead by doctors at the University of Pittsburgh, looked at the rate of recurrent shoulder dislocations and postsurgical outcomes in patients undergoing arthroscopic Bankart repair for anterior (front) shoulder instability immediately after a first-time traumatic anterior dislocation. They compared these results versus patients who sustained a second dislocation event who did not have a surgery after the first dislocation.

Surgeons suggest: If you are under 40, and you do not have surgery, your shoulder will get worse

There are times when surgery is necessary for shoulder repair. The debate in medicine is not whether surgery should be performed at all, the debate is whether there are too many surgeries being performed where there is not an obvious need for a shoulder operation.

Here is a February 2022 study from the Mayo Clinic. It was published in the Journal of shoulder and elbow surgery (15). The goal of the study was to assess what happened to patients by way of long-term outcomes of nonoperative treatment of anterior shoulder instability and identify risk factors for poor outcomes following nonoperative management.

These is the study’s summary and learning points:

What this study suggests is that medical intervention should be considered to prevent the development of long-term shoulder problems and osteoarthritis. Below we present other options besides surgery to address this.

In this video, Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C discusses treating nerve pain following shoulder surgery.

It is not uncommon for us to see patients after shoulder surgery who continue to have shoulder instability issues. Other times we will see patients after shoulder surgery who have continued pain. It may be the same pain that they had before surgery or it may be a different type of pain. What we find in many of these people is that even though healing is occurring and the shoulder looks well, the pain they are having is related to the nerves that may have been impacted during the surgery. We treat these patients with Nerve release injection therapy or more commonly hydrodissection.

Prolotherapy treatment focuses on shoulder ligaments to restore shoulder stability

Comprehensive H3 Prolotherapy and a rehabilitation program can strengthen the ligaments and dynamic shoulder stabilizers (rotator cuff muscles). Chronic pain is most commonly due to tendon and ligament weakness or cartilage deterioration, as is the case in acromioclavicular joint syndrome.

Prolotherapy is a regenerative injection treatment, which is what degenerated structures need. In our office, the shoulder is one of the most common areas we treat.

In addition, we have published scientific articles and studies on our results, this includes shoulder pain, glenoid labrum tears, arthritis and more.

RESEARCH: A Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine (16)

The aim of this study was to evaluate the therapeutic efficacy of ultrasound-guided prolotherapy in the treatment of acromial (inflammation of the enthesis) enthesopathy and acromioclavicular joint degeneration.


Caring Medical Research

Ross Hauser, MD discusses the Prolotherapy treatment results that were published a few years ago on part of our article series on the use of Hackett-Hemwall dextrose Prolotherapy, as well as shows a treatment demonstration from a Prolotherapy symposium he taught in 2021

In published research from Caring Medical doctors, The optimal long-term, symptomatic therapy for chronic shoulder pain has not been established. Accordingly, we investigated the outcomes of patients undergoing Hackett-Hemwall dextrose Prolotherapy treatment for unresolved shoulder pain at a charity clinic in rural Illinois.

We hope you found this article informative and it helped answer many of the questions you may have surrounding your shoulder problems.  If you would like to get more information specific to your challenges please email us: Get help and information from our Caring Medical staff

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This page was updated August 14, 2022


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