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What Is an AC Joint Separation?

The acromioclavicular (AC) joint of the shoulder is injured in 50% of all shoulder joint dislocations. AC joint separation and AC joint dislocation occur when the ball and socket of the shoulder joint are knocked or pulled out of place. When injured by shoulder separation, patients wonder, “what is an AC joint separation, and do I need to see the doctor?” Our highly qualified team of shoulder specialists at Vail-Summit Orthopaedics & Neurosurgery (VSON) can answer your questions and provide an AC joint separation treatment plan. Our team of specialists includes:

Symptoms & Diagnosis of an AC Joint Dislocation

AC joint dislocation injuries are ranked by grade. Depending on the severity of the injury, patients can experience a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • Weakness

  • Pain

  • Tenderness

  • decreased motion to the joint

  • Bruising

  • Swelling

  • Instability

  • Numbness

  • Tingling

  • Muscle spasms

In the event of a shoulder separation at the clavicle, deformity of the protruding bone beneath the skin can be visible. Patients should see a shoulder doctor to be evaluated.

Grade 1 to 3 - mild to significant AC joint separation

  • Mild to significant tenderness at the AC joint

  • Swelling, mild to significant

  • Partial to complete rupture of AC and CC (coracoclavicular) ligaments

Grades 4 to 6 - significant to severe AC joint dislocation. Patients will experience the above symptoms, and:

  • Acute pain and loss of shoulder function

  • Potential involvement of collateral soft tissue damage

  • Urgent need for medical attention

Our orthopaedic shoulder specialists complete a detailed diagnostic process to grade the injury and determine the optimum AC joint separation treatment plan. Our shoulder specialist will conduct a complete medical history, including frequent shoulder separation incidences. Patients will perform several gentle movements to evaluate function, strength, and pain level. X-rays will provide data on bone involvement. An MRI will image muscle, nerve, and blood vessel involvement. The result will be a comprehensive picture of the AC joint separation and corresponding AC joint separation treatment plan.

Treatment Options for a Shoulder Separation

Grade 1 to 3 AC joint injury often indicates a non-surgical treatment plan. Rest, ice therapy, and pain management will be the initial protocol. The doctor will prescribe exercises for joint function. Healing may take a few weeks to a few months. Return to activity will be determined between the patient and the doctor.

Grade 4 to 6 AC joint injury usually indicates surgery. Our shoulder specialist will determine the precise surgical procedure to repair the shoulder separation damage. Possible surgical treatments include:

  • Closed reduction – resetting shoulder dislocation requiring anesthesia

  • Bankart repair – used for dislocation toward the front of the shoulder

  • Capsular shift surgery – used for chronic dislocations to repair ligaments

  • Latarjet surgery – bone grafting from dislocation damage

Our team of experts can provide excellent, personalized care. If you have sustained an AC joint shoulder dislocation, contact our shoulder specialist team today. We are committed to keeping you active.


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