Athletes are familiar with shoulder pain. After all, virtually all contact sports involve some injuries. Sports enthusiasts aren’t the only ones who suffer from shoulder joint pain, however. Whether you sustained a hit during an intense hockey game or simply tweaked your shoulder cleaning out the garage, you must be sure you take care of yourself to heal properly.

In this article, we take an in-depth look at a common shoulder injury, symptoms of an AC joint sprains. Continue reading for answers to some common questions about this condition.

What Is an AC Joint Sprain?

Your shoulder has several important bones, ligaments, and tissues. The AC joint consists of two of these, your collarbone and your acromion. While you probably can easily locate your collarbone, you may not be familiar with your shoulder’s acromion. Simply, the acromion is a bony area that sits on top of your shoulder blade. Ligaments hold the joint together while offering strength and support to your shoulder.

An AC joint sprain happens when the ligaments of the AC joint stretch, strain or tear. If you haven’t heard the term, AC sprain, you may know the condition by its common name, a shoulder separation. If you sustain an injury to your shoulder, you may have an AC joint sprain.

Doctors use degrees to describe AC joint sprains. A first-grade injury occurs when the acromioclavicular ligament is strained or slightly torn. This causes the AC joint to become mildly displaced. With a second-grade injury, the acromioclavicular ligament tears entirely. This results in considerable shifting of the joint.

Third- and fourth-grade injuries happen when both the acromioclavicular and coracoclavicular ligaments are injured. With injuries of these degrees, the AC joint becomes fully separated. If the injury involves other ligaments, bones and shoulder muscles, it may receive a fifth-grade or sixth-grade classification. These severe injuries often require intensive surgical procedures to repair. While they may technically be AC sprains, they usually require immediate medical attention. As such, we reserve the focus of this article for first-grade, second-grade and third-grade AC joint injuries.

How Do You Know If You Have an AC Joint Sprain?

doctor and patient

The easiest way to know if you have an AC joint sprain is to feel for pain. Unlike other injuries that can trigger misplaced pain sensations, AC joint sprains typically leave the top of your shoulder feeling sore. This is the spot where your collarbone attaches to the acromion.

While pain from an AC joint sprain is usually specific, it can begin as general discomfort. Eventually, however, pain will likely localize where the collarbone and acromion connect. You may also notice swelling or a defined bulge in the area. Some who sustain an AC joint sprain also notice bruising, although soreness may be your only symptom.

With AC sprains, pain generally intensifies with shoulder movement. If you feel shooting pain or a throbbing sensation when you attempt to raise your shoulders over your head or move your arms from side to side, an AC sprain could be the culprit. Moreover, you may feel an overall sense of muscular weakness in the affected shoulder and arm.

What Causes AC Joint Sprains?

football game

Most AC joint sprains come from direct impacts to the shoulder. As such, you may sprain your AC joint during physical activity, a fall or an accident. In fewer cases, AC joint sprains are secondary injuries to direct hits to another part of the body, such as the elbow or forearm. With these injuries, upward momentum causes the shoulder injury. Generally, however, AC joint sprains do not come from repetitive motions.

With athletes, AC joint sprains are common. Contact sports, such as hockey, football and soccer, often expose players to joint trouble. An AC joint sprain, however, is not exclusive to fitness fanatics. A fall on winter ice, an automobile accident or other everyday occurrences can contribute to the injury. For older individuals, AC joint troubles are often misidentified as arthritis. Those who care for seniors must recognize that localized trauma to the shoulder can cause an AC joint sprain.

How Do You Know If You Have an AC Joint Sprain?

shoulder xray

The best way to determine if you have an AC joint sprain is to seek medical attention. When you are in the emergency room or your doctor’s office, your treating physician will likely ask you to submit for x-rays. The rationale for this approach is simple: doctors must rule out a fracture.

Nobody wants to go to the doctor. The belief that general shoulder pain will subside with some pain relievers and rest, though, could lead you down the wrong path. If your shoulder injury is serious, you need medical intervention. Even if your pain ultimately dwindles, your shoulder may not heal correctly without the treatment of an experienced medical professional. The risk is long-term trouble with an important part of your body.

While seeing your doctor is your best bet, there are some DIY tests to determine if you have an AC joint sprain. You can lift the arm attached to your sore shoulder up and then across your chest. If you feel a sharp pain or more intense pain, you probably have an AC joint sprain. You can also lift your arm over your head. If you experience pain when you raise your arm high, you could have a problem with your AC joint.

Remember, with AC joint sprains you can make the problem worse. While you are doing a self-assessment of shoulder mobility, you should immediately cease any movements that become painful. As we recommended in the first paragraph of this section, you should immediately seek medical attention if you think you have an AC sprain.

How Long Does It Take to Recover From an AC Joint Sprain?

Recovery time for AC joint sprains usually depends on the severity of the sprain. For first-grade sprains, recovery may take fewer than a couple weeks. More serious sprains, however, may take you out of commission for several weeks or a few months. Exact recovery time depends on the treatment plan your physician prescribes. Of course, pushing yourself too hard following an injury is a recipe for re-injury. As such, you must strive to avoid excessive physical activity until your AC sprain completely heals.

What Should You Do If You Have an AC Sprain?

arm streching

Everyone is different. While two individuals may suffer the same type of injury, they may have unique roads to recovery. Therefore, it is important to undergo a physical examination and receive a treatment plan for your AC sprain. Generally, though, doctors and physical therapists recommend taking a few steps to ensure the AC sprain resolves properly.

First, you must be cognizant of your range of motion. While many small movements are acceptable, moving to the end point of your shoulder’s range of motion is a mistake. This can reinjure an already ailing AC joint. Remember, an AC joint sprain is simply not the kind of muscular soreness you can fix with stretching. The ligaments inside your shoulder joint need time to heal. Forcing them into uncomfortable extended positions is a bad idea.

You also must listen to your body. While there is a place in everyone’s life for the slogan, “no pain, no gain,” AC joint injuries are not that place. While your AC joint is healing, you should immediately stop any movements that are uncomfortable. If you can, pay special attention to which movements cause the pain and avoid doing them.

Should You Wear a Brace While Your AC Sprain Heals?

arm brace

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During the first few days of an AC joint injury, your shoulder may not be able to support the weight of your arm adequately. Accordingly, for the first week, you should give your shoulder some additional support. Wearing a brace or sling usually works. In addition to giving your shoulder some extra support, these medical devices help you avoid movements that could reinjure your AC joint during the acute period following your injury.

You don’t want to train your shoulder to heal in an incorrect position. Accordingly, while you should consider wearing a sling or brace, you will likely want medical assistance to position it properly. Doctors see thousands of AC sprains every year and are in the best position to advise you on sling placement and other treatment procedures.

After a week or so, you can probably begin to make small movements. When you begin to move your shoulder again, you should watch for discomfort and weakness.

Your strategy here is to go slowly. Work with a physical therapist to gradually increase exercise and movement. With the right coaching, you can likely recover from your first-, second- or third-degree sprain.

Why Shouldn’t You Ignore Your AC Joint Sprain?

Everyone admires toughness. Still, you don’t want to be arrogant when it comes to shoulder health. A chronic AC joint sprain can make your life miserable. Even worse, an improperly healed sprain can contribute to long-term discomfort and mobility issues. If you think you have an AC joint sprain, you must put your health first. Talk to your doctor and follow his recommendations.

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