Minor injury (Grade 1 or 2)
How long does a Grade 1 AC joint sprain take to heal?
The AC Joint or acromioclavicular joint is made up of the clavicle (collar bone) and the scapula (shoulder blade) connected via four ligaments. An injury to any of these ligaments can result in an AC joint sprain.
AC joint sprains are graded according to the severity of the injury. In a grade 1 or mild AC joint sprain, the ligaments are stretched, causing micro-tears. The clavicle stays in place and the joint remains stable.
With a grade 1 sprain, pain and swelling will be minimal. You will feel pain when you move your arm sideways away from your body. You may be required to wear a sling to allow the joint to rest. A grade 1 sprain will often heal within 2 to 4 weeks.
How long does a Grade 2 AC joint sprain take to heal?
In a grade 2 or moderate AC joint sprain, some of the ligaments are ruptured. This is often called a subluxation because the clavicle becomes unstable. You may feel a slight bump on your shoulder and moving your arm in all directions may cause you pain.
This type of sprain typically requires a conservative treatment consisting of rest, pain medications, and physical therapy. It can take about 4 to 6 weeks for a grade 2 sprain to fully recover.
Major injury (Grade 3 or higher)
How long does a Grade 3 AC joint sprain take to heal?
A grade 3 AC joint sprain involves the rupture of all of the ligaments of the joint. This is often called a dislocation because the two bones forming the joint are no longer connected.
You will have a noticeable bump in the shoulder and noticeable swelling. Any movement will likely be very painful. You may be required to undergo conservative treatment first but a surgical repair may be needed if the injury does recover. It may take 6 to 12 weeks for the joint to heal but healing may take longer if surgery is performed.
How painful is a grade 3 AC joint sprain or separation?
In a grade 3 AC joint sprain, the ligaments holding the joint are completely torn, making your shoulder highly unstable.
It is commonly caused by a strong force hitting the shoulder, such as a direct blow from an external force or directly falling on the shoulder.
This type of injury can be extremely painful and moving the shoulders in any direction will be difficult. The pain may spread to the neck area and the sides of the arm.
Does Grade 3 AC joint sprain or separation require surgery?
Conservative treatment is initially given to a grade 3 AC joint sprain. It involves resting the injured shoulder in a sling, taking pain medications, placing ice, and elevating the shoulder to minimize the swelling during the first 48 hours.
Once the pain and swelling are reduced, controlled exercises prescribed and guided by a physical therapist will be done to gently and slowly allow movement in the injured shoulder.
Usually, a grade 3 AC joint sprain responds to conservative treatment and you may be able to go back to your daily activities within 3 months. However, if conservative treatment is not effective, you will be reevaluated and may be required to undergo surgery.
What is the fastest way to heal an AC joint sprain?
If you experience an AC joint sprain, consult your doctor immediately. You will need to stop any activity that you are doing and rest the affected shoulder to prevent the injury from becoming more severe.
Once you are in the hospital or clinic, your doctor will assess your injury and provide you with the proper treatment. You may be asked to get an X-ray or a CT scan to check for any fractures or if other structures are injured.
If going to a doctor is not possible, you will need to rest the injured shoulder, place ice to minimize swelling, and avoid activities that could cause or aggravate the pain.
You may choose to use a sling to support your shoulder and prevent it from moving. You may also take over-the-counter pain relief medications. Remember to consult your doctor as soon as you can.
Can an AC joint sprain heal on its own?
Grade 1 and 2 joint sprains can typically heal without surgical repair. For grade 3 sprains, you may need the advice of a doctor to evaluate if surgery is the best option for you.
What should I avoid with AC joint injury?
Your shoulders will become unstable after sustaining an AC joint injury. It is best to avoid any movements that could cause pain to the injured shoulder such as overhead reaching, lifting heavy objects, leaning on the elbow of the injured arm, reaching across your body, and sleeping on the injured side.
Dr Aarti is an MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery) from Baroda Medical College (The Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda). Dr. Aarti has also completed her Masters of Medical Science and Technology from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.