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How to Properly Wear a Sling on Your Shoulder

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Updated June 05, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Man with arm in sling
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If you have suffered an injury to your shoulder, elbow, or wrist, you may be required to wear a sling to help protect your arm while it heals. Wearing a sling keeps your arm against your body and prevents you from moving your arm too much as you heal after injury.

Common Problems that May Require You to Wear a Sling

There are many instances where you may be required to wear your arm in a sling after injury. These include:

After a fracture: A shoulder fracture, elbow fracture, or wrist fracture may require that you wear a sling. It is important after a fracture to immobilize your arm to ensure that the bones heal properly. The sling keeps your arm still and in place to be sure this occurs.

After shoulder surgery: If you have had a surgical procedure to your shoulder, you may need a sling to prevent the muscles around your shoulder from contracting too hard and disrupting the healing process. After a rotator cuff surgery, a forceful contraction of your muscles can tear the repaired muscle. The sling prevents this from occurring.

After stroke: A stroke is a serious injury. It may cause paralysis in your arm, leg, or both. If your shoulder is not moving properly, it may become painful as it hangs at your side. A sling helps support your arm and prevents it from pulling uncomfortably at your shoulder.

If you are required to wear a sling, it is important that you wear it properly. This helps to prevent fluid and blood from accumulating in your hand and wrist. You also want to be comfortable while wearing the sling, and putting it on properly can ensure maximum comfort.

Here’s how you put on the sling:

  1. Gently pull the sling over your arm and elbow. It should fit snugly and comfortably around your elbow. Your hand should come to the very end of the sling. Make sure the end of the sling doesn’t cut into your wrist or hand.

  2. Reach around your neck and grab the strap that is attached to the sling behind your elbow. Pull the strap around the back of your neck and feed it through the loop in the sling that is near your hand. Pull the strap through and tighten it so that your hand and forearm are pulled up above the level of your elbow. This helps to prevent blood and fluid from pooling in your hand and wrist.

  3. Fasten the strap with the Velcro fasteners. You may wish to put a small piece of terry cloth under the strap for comfort around your neck.

  4. Some slings have a strap that goes around your back as well. This prevents you from lifting your elbow away from your body. If your sling has this strap, reach behind your back and grab it. (It is usually attached to the sling near your elbow.) Pull the strap around your back and fasten it to the sling near your hand. Make sure that the strap is not too tight. You should be able to fit two or three fingers between your body and the strap of the sling.

When you are wearing the sling, your muscles around your shoulder, elbow and wrist should be relaxed. Many doctors and physical therapists recommend pendulum exercises two to three times per day to help maintain gentle mobility in your arm as it heals. Speak with your doctor to see if these exercises are appropriate for your condition.

The sling is designed to immobilize your arm. One of the detriments of immobilization is that it may cause decreased range of motion (ROM) and decreased strength in your arm. Once your injury has healed, you may need to consult with a physical therapist to learn exercises to help improve the ROM and strength in your arm. Again, speak with your doctor to ensure that exercise is appropriate for your specific situation.

Wearing a sling can cause a bit of anxiety with all of its straps and loops. With practice, you will be able to comfortably wear your sling to allow your arm to properly and safely heal. If you feel like you need more help with your sling, be sure to contact your local physical therapist for assistance.

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