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Broken shoulder (Humeral fracture)

This page has been designed to provide you with the right information about shoulder fractures and how to manage them from a physiotherapy point of view.

What is a shoulder fracture?   

Firstly, a fracture is the same as a break. The word fracture is a medical term and a break is more of a common term to describe an injury to a bone that has caused it to break. For the remainder of this information page, we will use the term fracture.

There are many different types of fractures regardless of this; they all essentially mean the same thing i.e. that one or more of the bones in your shoulder have been broken.


My fracture is in my upper arm but you keep calling it the shoulder, is it the same thing?

In essence, yes. The humerus is the bone in your upper arm and the very top of it is the ball of the ball and socket joint that is your shoulder joint. Whether your fracture is specifically in, or near,  the shoulder itself, you will probably find that most humeral fractures use the term shoulder when describing them.


Is it easy to fracture your shoulder?

It really isn’t easy to break a bone in your body. Your bones are incredibly strong and can take an awful lot of knocks, bumps and injuries and will generally not complain. You are more likely to find that you may upset the soft tissues (ligaments, muscles and tendons) following an injury than your bones.


How would you fracture a shoulder?

The most common way to fracture a shoulder is by falling onto an outstretched hand or directly onto the shoulder itself. In general, if you fall you will instinctively put your hands out to protect your face. As your hand hits the floor, the force and energy created by the fall goes through your hand and up to the shoulder and if is more than the shoulder can cope with it may cause the bone to break. If you fall directly onto the shoulder itself, the force may be enough to cause a problem.

Remember, it is very difficult to break a bone therefore most of the time, an injury to your shoulder would result soft tissue injury rather than a fracture.


What if I think I’ve actually broken my shoulder?

If you have suffered an injury and your shoulder is significantly swollen, bruised, perhaps has changed shape, very painful and you simply cannot move it properly you should seek help via A&E.


If I go to hospital, what will they do?

Often, a diagnosis can be made by asking some special questions and a physical examination (if available) however, if the hospital suspects you may have fractured your shoulder then they will arrange an x-ray to check your bones.

What if they find that I’ve broken my shoulder, what will happen?

If you have been to the hospital and an x-ray has revealed that you have fractured your shoulder, then normally you will be asked to see a specialist orthopaedic (bone and joint specialist) doctor to discuss your options. You will probably be placed in a sling whilst you wait for this to happen.

Normally, the two options are non-surgical or surgical management.

Can shoulder fractures be managed without surgery?

Yes indeed, in fact most shoulder fractures do not need an operation however, the orthopaedic doctor and their team will decide with you what the best option for you might be. Certain types of fractures can be managed more easily without surgery and some types of fractures do better with the help that surgery offers.


What happens after I’ve left hospital?

For most people, you will be asked to wear your sling for several weeks. Dependent on the type of fracture or if you have had an operation or not, you may be shown some very gentle exercises to complete whilst in the sling. In some cases, you might be told to not exercise your shoulder for the first few weeks after your break.

You will have a discussion with the hospital about physiotherapy and will either be referred or be encouraged to self-refer

What can I expect after breaking my shoulder?

Breaking any bone can be a very unpleasant experience. It can be a worrying time and you may find yourself feeling unsure of what to expect.

Although it can be different from person to person, in the first stages after a broken shoulder most people will experience discomfort, limited movement and difficulty doing normal day-to-day things.

When will my shoulder be healed?

Fractures typically heal within about 6-8 weeks. There are things that might influence this such as any pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes or if you smoke, but typically once you pass the 6-8 week time scale you can consider your shoulder healed.

Unfortunately, just because the fracture itself might be healed (a higher level of healing goes on for several months but you won’t be aware of this), does not mean that any pain will stop or the movement will come back by itself. This is where rehabilitation and physiotherapy can help.


Can I break it again by using it?

Your bones were strong before the fracture and they will still be strong now after the fracture. Your shoulder may be sore and you may find that your confidence to use it normally might have been affected since the break but it is not fragile and it is not vulnerable.

By exercising your shoulder and by doing normal daily things you can help the healing process even more and which help you get a better result overall.


Can I expect my shoulder to go back to exactly how it was before I broke it?

This is a really good question. Once you have broken a bone, especially if it is close to a joint, you have effectively changed its’ anatomy. With this in mind, you may find that after a fracture that your shoulder may not be able to go back to everything you did before or do things in the way you did before 100%. The good news is that if you work hard, are patient and kind to yourself and give it the right amount of time, you will make the best recovery that you can.

Ok, what can I start doing to help my shoulder get better?


Is there anything else I can do?


Is there anything I should look out for?

After a fracture or a period of time where your shoulder hasn’t been able to move (in a sling), it is important to monitor for the following symptoms…

  • Redness, swelling and heat around the shoulder/ arm especially if accompanied by a fever or generally feeling unwell.
  • Poor healing of your wound (only applicable if you have had an operation) – wet or oozing especially if accompanied by a fever or feeling generally unwell.
  • Gross levels of pain that is not easily controlled with pain relief.
  • Significant swelling of your arm (especially if pressing it leaves a finger mark)
  • Any of the above especially if you have had a past history of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT).

If you have any concerns about any of the symptoms listed above, you should speak with your GP, 111 or seek help from A&E.

How long will it take to get better?

This is one of the hardest questions to answer and probably the most important question for someone who has broken their shoulder. Shoulders do recover but they can often be slow. By working with your physiotherapist to help regain movement, strength and trust back into your shoulder, you are more likely to get a better result. In most cases, recovery can stretch from weeks into months.

It is important to know your progress will be slow. It is unlikely that you will wake up in the morning with your shoulder all recovered but much more likely that over time pain levels ease, movement gently increases and the ability to go back to doing normal things becomes more simple.

It is worth reminding yourself that once you have had a shoulder fracture, it is very difficult to get full movement back in the shoulder but you can expect that your ability to use your shoulder, albeit in some cases a little differently, should return.


What exercises should I be doing to start with?

In the earliest stages of your recovery i.e. within the first few weeks, it is recommended that you simply try to gently move the shoulder as well as you can and as far as is comfortable. We have provided a selection of suitable exercises below.

This is general advice regarding shoulder exercises. If you’ve been told by the hospital to wait before starting exercise then please respect those instructions. If unsure, your physiotherapist can help guide you.

Frequently asked questions


A: It is not unusual to find that your wrist feels strange after an injury. It is normal to feel tight or stiff after a fracture of any kind, but these things often ease with time and some gentle exercises.

A: Swelling can sometimes be the last thing to settle after injuries.  It can sometimes hang around for weeks into months after the injury however, if you are feeling better, moving better and doing more, it is not something you should be worried about.

A: It is not uncommon to find that your fingers might swell or feel stiff after a shoulder injury. For the most part, this is either down to gravity pulling the swelling down your arm into your hand or the fact that you might be using the arm less, which might contribute to your fingers feeling stiff/ swollen.

A: This is something that can be fairly common after a shoulder fracture. If you have been asked to wear a sling at any point, this can sometimes contribute to a sore neck. If allowed by the hospital or your physio, you can spend time out of the sling to help ease this. Once out of your sling, your neck can sometimes still be sore and this is often due to your shoulder and the surrounding muscles getting used to a new way of working. This often eases with time.

You can find some excellent guidance and exercises for neck problems here: Neck self help

A: It is likely that you will not be able to return to driving for at least 6 weeks after your injury. It is each individual’s responsibility to ensure they are fit to drive. As well as making sure you are in full control of the vehicle at all times, you should ensure you can confidently and without any hesitation, perform an emergency stop before even considering driving on public roads.

It is always recommended to contact your insurance company one month before you return to driving to ensure your insurance is valid. This advice is the same if you drive an automatic car.

A: This will be dictated by your shoulder and your sport. Most people will find their shoulder feels better after several weeks/ months. By working on the movement, strength and balance exercises, as well as being patient, you may find that going back to most sports by about 3 months will be successful (this can be very variable and very much specific to you as an individual).

Exercise tip:

Movement exercises: You should try to complete these little and often throughout the day. Try to move your shoulder as far as is comfortable. You do not need to force the movement.


Strength exercises: You should aim to complete the exercises (as many or as few as you want to) about 3 to 4 times a week.

Each exercise should be completed between 8-12 times (or repetitions) for 3 to 4 sets. Make sure you have about 1 minutes rest in between each set.

For the strengthening exercises remember, in order to change your muscles you need to challenge them. In other words, you should really feel the effort with each set of exercises and should really not be able to do more than 12 each time around.

Stengthening Exercises

Download our blank gym programme here.

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