After an injury to your shoulder, elbow, or wrist, you might need to wear a sling on your arm to protect it while healing.
A shoulder sling keeps your arm against your body and prevents you from moving it too much as you heal. If you wear it the wrong way, you might delay healing or injure your arm more.
This article goes over when you need a shoulder sling, how to wear it correctly, and mistakes to avoid.
Common Reasons for a Shoulder Sling
Many things can lead to the need for a shoulder sling. They include:
- Fractures: If you have a shoulder fracture, elbow fracture, or wrist fracture, it's important to limit your arm movements to help broken bones heal properly.
- Shoulder surgery: After a rotator cuff surgery, using your muscles too vigorously can tear the repaired muscle. The sling prevents this from happening.
- After a stroke: A stroke is a serious medical event that can cause paralysis in your limbs. If your shoulder isn't moving correctly, it may become painful as it hangs at your side.
Your healthcare provider might advise you to wear a sling as your body heals from other upper-body injuries or surgeries, too.
How to Wear Your Shoulder Sling
If you must wear a sling, it's important to wear it the right way to prevent fluid and blood from pooling in your hand and wrist and make sure your arm heals well.
To put on a shoulder sling correctly:
- Gently pull the sling over your arm and elbow. It should fit snugly around the elbow. Your hand should be at the very end of the sling, which shouldn't cut into your wrist or hand. If your hand flopps down, your sling may be too small.
- Reach around your neck and grab the strap behind your elbow. Pull the strap around the back of your neck and push it through the loop near your hand.
- Tighten the straps to keep your hand and forearm elevated above the level of your elbow. This keeps blood and fluid from pooling in your hand and wrist.
- Attach the strap with the Velcro fasteners. You might want to put a small piece of soft cloth under the strap to make it more comfortable around your neck.
- If your sling has a strap that goes around your back to keep the elbow close to the body, reach behind to pull the strap around your back and fasten it near your hand. Make sure it's not too tight. Two or three fingers should fit between your body and the strap.
Your shoulder sling should fit comfortably and not feel tight. It should keep your shoulder, elbow, and wrist in a relaxed position so you can go about your day-to-day life.
Click Play to Learn How to Wear a Sling
This video has been medically reviewed by Oluseun Olufade, MD.
Common mistakes people make when wearing a shoulder sling can cause discomfort and slow down the healing process. Your healthcare provider or physical therapist can help you avoid these pitfalls.
Sling Is Too Loose
If the sling doesn't support your shoulder, elbow, and wrist, it won't keep your arm in place. This can put unnecessary stress and strain on your arm.
Make sure the shoulder sling supports your arm and forearm, and keep your elbow at a 90-degree angle. If your elbow is too straight, the sling may be too loose.
Shoulder Sling Is Too Tight
A shoulder sling that's too tight may limit blood flow to and from your elbow and hand. This blocks oxygen from getting to your tissues and can damage your arm, hand, or fingers.
Ask your healthcare provider or physical therapist to adjust your sling if your arm, hand, or fingers:
- Feel numb
- Feel cold
- Turn blue
Arm Is Hanging Too Low
When you wear your shoulder sling, your arm shouldn't hang too low. If it does, the weight of your arm may put more stress and strain on the healing arm and shoulder.
Plus, your arm may suddenly fall out of the sling if it's hanging too low.
Keep your elbow bent at 90 degrees while you wear your sling. The sling should support your arm firmly against your body without lifting. Your shoulder should be in a stable and neutral position, not higher or lower than normal.
If you're not sure if the sling is on properly, ask your healthcare provider or physical therapist to adjust it.
You're Not Exercising Neighboring Muscles
The goal of your shoulder sling is to protect your shoulder and arm as it heals. But you should still use some of the muscles of your arm and hand during recovery.
The sling is designed to limit your shoulder mobility. Because of that, it can decrease your arm's range of motion (ROM) and strength—unless you take steps to avoid that.
During recovery, your healthcare provider might tell you to take off the sling and do no-impact pendulum circle exercises two to three times per day. This helps keep your joints mobile.
Also, handgrip exercises with therapy putty can provide resistance and help your wrist and forearm get stronger.
Physical Therapy Exercise for Rotator Cuff Injuries
Wearing a shoulder sling may be key to helping your arm or shoulder heal after an upper-body injury or surgery. You might need to wear a sling after a stroke or if you have an elbow or shoulder fracture. It's important to use it correctly.
Proper use prevents further injury and helps your muscles heal faster. Make sure your sling is not too loose or too tight, and keep your arm next to your body.
A Word FromVerywell
All the straps and loops can cause a bit of anxiety when you start wearing a shoulder sling. With practice, you'll be able to comfortably wear itto let your arm properly and safely heal.
Once your injury has healed, you may need to do exercises to improve your arm strength and range of motion. Improving mobility can help you return to your pre-injury condition.
Treating a Shoulder Injury With Ultrasound
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you sleep with a shoulder sling on?
Yes, you should. It's important to keep your arm immobilized while you sleep so you don't hurt it more. You might find it easier to sleep sitting up.
When can I take off my shoulder sling?
You can take off the sling to:
- Do physical therapy exercises
- To bend and straighten your elbow and move your fingers a few times a day
How long should your arm be in a sling?
A shoulder sling is generally used for between 4 and 6 weeks after your surgery or injury. Make sure you follow the instructions from your healthcare provider(s).(Video) How to Get Dressed and Undressed After Shoulder Surgery or Injury
Exercises After Shoulder Surgery
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Cleveland Clinic. Shoulder fractures.
Hollman F, Wolterbeek N, Zijl JAC, van Egeraat SPM, Wessel RN. Abduction brace versus antirotation sling after arthroscopic cuff repair: the effects on pain and function.Arthroscopy: The Journal of Arthroscopic & Related Surgery. 2017;33(9):1618-1626. doi:10.1016/j.arthro.2017.02.010
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Arm care after a stroke.
Johns Hopkins Medicine, The Johns Hopkins Hospital Patient Information. Instructions for wearing your shoulder immobilizer brace.
Washington University Physicians. Postoperative care.
By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.
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