Skip to main content

«  View All Posts

Physical Therapy

Immediate Steps for a Dislocated Joint and Ongoing Care

July 5th, 2024 | 5 min. read

Immediate Steps for a Dislocated Joint and Ongoing Care
Chris Brandt

Chris Brandt

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, DPT // Director of Marketing and Sales // Certified Dry Needling Specialist // EW Motion Therapy Homewood

Print/Save as PDF

Dislocating a joint is a painful and often alarming experience. Understanding what to do in this situation, recognizing the symptoms, and knowing the differences between a dislocation and subluxation can make a significant difference in your recovery process. Professional treatment and rehabilitation are crucial for a full recovery after a dislocation. Once the joint is realigned, your doctor may recommend physical therapy to restore range of motion, strength, and stability. Physical therapists can tailor exercises to your specific needs, ensuring that the joint heals properly and reducing the risk of future dislocations - we do this for our patients daily at EW Motion Therapy. In this comprehensive guide, we'll cover exactly what to do after you dislocate or subluxate a joint, provide short and long-term treatment options, and explain how physical therapy can aid your recovery.


Download our Physical Therapy Q&A Here!


Dislocation vs. subluxation: understanding the difference



A dislocation occurs when the bones in a joint are forced out of their normal positions. This typically happens due to a sudden impact or trauma, such as a fall, collision, or severe twisting motion. Commonly dislocated joints include the shoulder, knee, elbow, and fingers. Symptoms of dislocation can include: 


  • Intense pain
  • Visible deformity or out-of-place appearance
  • Swelling and bruising
  • Inability to move the joint
  • Numbness or tingling around the joint



Subluxation, on the other hand, refers to a partial dislocation where the bones in a joint are not completely out of position. This condition can be the result of a similar trauma but often involves less severe force. A subluxation can also be caused by conditions like ligament laxity or previous joint injuries that have weakened the joint. Symptoms of subluxation can include: 


  • Pain and discomfort, though usually less severe than a full dislocation
  • Feeling of joint instability or looseness
  • Swelling and bruising
  • Limited range of motion
  • A feeling that the joint may "give out"


Immediate steps to take when you dislocate a joint


Do not attempt to reset the joint yourself

Attempting to put the joint back in place without professional help can cause more damage to the surrounding muscles, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels. In some cases, the dislocated joint might spontaneously pop back into place, but it is still crucial to seek medical attention as the surrounding tissues, nerves, and blood vessels may have been damaged.


Immobilize the joint

Use a splint or sling to keep the joint in its current position. Avoid moving it to prevent further injury. It's also crucial to keep the person with the dislocation calm and still until medical professionals can take over. If you're trained in first aid, you can check their circulation, sensation, and movement below the injury after immobilization.


Apply ice

Applying ice packs to the injured area can help reduce swelling and alleviate pain. Wrap the ice in a cloth to prevent frostbite and apply it for 15-20 minutes at a time.


Seek medical attention immediately

Go to the nearest emergency room or urgent care facility immediately. Medical professionals can properly diagnose the injury and ensure the joint is safely realigned. Delay in treatment can lead to complications such as joint instability, chronic pain, or arthritis.


Short-term treatment options


Medical realignment

A healthcare provider will perform a reduction, a procedure to maneuver the bones back into their proper positions. This may require sedation or anesthesia to manage pain and relax the muscles around the joint.



After the joint is realigned, it will likely be immobilized using a splint, cast, or sling to keep it stable during the initial healing phase. The duration of the immobilization depends on the severity of the dislocation and the joint involved.


Pain management

Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help manage pain and reduce inflammation. In some cases, stronger prescription medications may be necessary.


Long-term treatment options



In severe cases, particularly if repeated dislocations or significant damage to the joint structures occur, surgery may be required. Surgical options vary depending on the joint and the extent of the injury but can include repairing or reconstructing ligaments, tendons, or the joint capsule.



Post-surgery rehabilitation is essential to ensure proper healing and to regain full functionality of the joint. This process often involves a combination of physical therapy exercises, stretching, and strength training.


How physical therapy can help with recovery

Once the initial healing phase is complete, physical therapy plays a crucial role in recovery. A physical therapist will design a personalized exercise program to restore strength, flexibility, and range of motion. Physical therapy also helps prevent future dislocations by strengthening the muscles around the joint and improving joint stability.


Personalized exercise programs

Physical therapists assess the specific needs of each patient and create customized exercise programs. These programs focus on gradually increasing the strength and range of motion of the affected joint without exacerbating injury.


Pain management techniques

Therapists employ various techniques to manage pain, including manual therapy, ultrasound therapy, and electrical stimulation. These methods help reduce pain and inflammation, facilitating a smoother recovery process.


Education and prevention

A significant aspect of physical therapy is educating patients on preventing future injuries. Therapists teach proper body mechanics, joint protection techniques, and exercises that can be done at home to maintain joint health.


Support and motivation

Recovering from a joint dislocation can be a long and challenging process. Physical therapists provide support and motivation, helping patients stay committed to their rehabilitation plans and achieve recovery goals.


Dislocating a joint is a serious injury that requires immediate and appropriate action to ensure the best possible outcome. Understanding the differences between dislocation and subluxation, recognizing the symptoms, and knowing the correct steps to take can significantly impact your recovery. Both short and long-term treatment options, including physical therapy, are essential for regaining strength, stability, and function. 


By following medical advice and committing to a rehabilitation program, you can effectively recover from a dislocated joint and reduce the risk of future injuries. Physical therapy is essential to regain mobility and function in the dislocated joint once it heals - we love helping our patients recover from injury so they can return to the activities they love. If you’re curious about how much your physical therapy might cost, click the button below to download our free pricing guide.


New call-to-action