Posterior shoulder dislocation

Dr Henry Knipe and Radswiki et al.

Posterior shoulder dislocation are far less common than an anterior shoulder dislocation and can be tricky to identify if only AP projections are obtained. 


Posterior shoulder dislocations account for only 2-4% of all shoulder dislocations (the vast majority are anterior) 1,3


Typically the humeral head is forced posteriorly in internal rotation while the arm is abducted 1,3. In adults, convulsive disorder is the most common cause. Electrocution is a classic but uncommon cause of posterior shoulder dislocation. In both situations bilateral dislocations are not infrequent 1-3.

Occasionally, they can be the result of strength imbalance within the rotator cuff muscles. Posterior dislocations may even go unnoticed, especially in elderly patients 1

Radiographic features

Plain films usually suffice in making the diagnosis, although cross-sectional imaging (CT  / MRI)  is often used to assess for the presence and extent of articular surface injury (reverse Hill-Sachs lesion), glenoid injury (reverse Bankart lesion) or ligamentous injury.

Plain radiograph

posterior dislocation may be missed initially on frontal radiographs in 50% of cases, as the humeral head appears to be almost normally aligned with the glenoid 1-2. An axillary view is the preferred view for diagnosis. A Velpeau or Wallace view is an alternative 5. A scapular Y view has been shown to be unreliable for diagnosing posterior shoulder dislocations 4.

  • absence of external rotation on images in a standard shoulder series is a clue 
  • lightbulb sign: internally rotated humeral head takes on a rounded appearance2 
  • trough line sign: vertical dense line in medial humeral head
  • loss of normal half-moon overlap sign
  • rim sign: widened glenohumeral joint > 6 mm
  • acute angle of the scapulohumeral arch (Moloney's arch) is also present and can be used to distinguish from anterior dislocation

A number of associated injuries are recognised including 2:

Reporting checklist

In addition to stating that a posterior dislocation is present, any evidence of proximal humeral fractures or glenoid fractures should be sought and commented upon. 

Treatment and prognosis

In most cases, acute posterior dislocations have spontaneously reduced prior to imaging 3

When a posterior dislocation presents to the emergency department, unlike anterior shoulder dislocations which are relatively easily reduced, posterior dislocations are more problematic and attempts at closed reduction should only be performed in consultation with a treating orthopaedic surgeon 2. Additionally if the shoulder has been dislocated for 3 or more weeks (particularly common in elderly debilitated patients) or if the anterior humeral articular injury (reverse Hill-Sachs lesion) involves more than 20% of the articular surface, then closed reduction is contraindicated 2

Fortunately neurovascular compromise is uncommon, but associated glenolabral and capsular injuries can lead to posterior shoulder instability 2-3

Differential diagnosis

See also

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