Shouldering On: Recovering from AC Joint Separation

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Dr. Kevin Plancher of Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine Shares Tips on How to Get Back in the Game after a Separated Shoulder.

Dr. Kevin Plancher

Unfortunately, the shoulder’s unique flexibility increases the possibility of injury.

Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers. Trevor Siemian of the Broncos. The Giants’ Eli Manning. Over the years, these fantasy football favorites have all shared one unwanted stat: a hard sack that resulted in a separated shoulder. “The autumn season brings tackle football,” notes Dr. Kevin Plancher, MD, of Plancher Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. “And tackle football involves impacts as well as other more severe injuries that may cause shoulder separation injuries.”

Football is not the only contact and collision sport. Sports like soccer, hockey, and rugby also provide arenas for athletes to go down hard, sideways, and damage the connection between the body’s collarbone and the top of the shoulder blade – known as the acromioclavicular (AC) joint.

“Our shoulder is a key connector between the arm and torso,” says Dr. Plancher. “It’s the most flexible joint in our body, letting us reach high and low, to the front, the back, and the side. The last thing any athlete wants is an injury keeping them out of their sport.”

All of us could slip or fall on our shoulder. “Every year, millions of people see orthopeadic surgeons about their shoulders,” points out Dr. Plancher. “More than ten percent of injuries are AC joint separations. And if we focus on contact and collision sports alone, shoulder separations jump to almost half.”

Unfortunately, the shoulder’s unique flexibility increases the possibility of injury. And once injured, recovering that flexibility can be a challenge but when monitored it is often successful.

As Chairman of the annual Orthopaedic Summit Evolving Technique course, a leading course for orthopods which includes numerous sessions on the shoulder. “The good news is that orthopaedic research is tackling the challenge of AC joint separations head on,” he says. “And we’re seeing continuing improvements in our ability to help athletes and non-athletes alike.”

To get back in the game after a shoulder separation, Dr. Plancher advises the following:

4 Tips to Recover from a Separated Shoulder
1. Know Your Injury “Type”: “AC joint injuries vary,” explains Dr. Plancher. “Medically, we identify six types, from least to most severe. For Type I and II injuries, where the ligaments that connect the collarbone to the shoulder blade are less damaged, rest and rehabilitation will typically restore function. But more severe torn ligaments – in particular those we classify as Types IV to VI – usually may require reconstructive surgery. Patients should have a clear understanding of their type of injury so that the most effective approach can be used.”

2. It’s Seriously Important to Get Your MRI and XRAYs Unfortunately,” Dr. Plancher points out, “the injury that causes AC joint damage may also do other damage, for instance to the glenohumeral – or shoulder – joint, where the upper arm and shoulder blade connect. Additional upper body injuries – to the nerves, lungs, or arteries – should also be ruled out.”

3. To Operate or Not to Operate – Individual Considerations Help Address the Question: “We have some consensus about when to operate,” notes Dr. Plancher, explaining that Type I and II injuries usually heal without surgery, while injuries classified as Type IV or above may require only Physical Therapy. “lifestyle, activity level and type all play a role in this complex decision.

4. Rehab It Right: Patience is More Than a Virtue: “Regardless of the injury type,” Dr. Plancher states, “patients who follow their rehabilitation will experience the best outcomes., Recovery in severe cases can require six months, but it will be worth the work to hopefully return to your previously active lifestyle.”

“The good news,” emphasizes Dr. Plancher, “is that ongoing medical advances are helping patients get back in their games.”

Kevin D. Plancher, MD, is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon and the founder of Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.

Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine is a comprehensive orthopaedics and sports medicine practice with offices in New York City and Greenwich, CT.

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