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What is a Sling?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A sling is a medical device made from cloth or webbing that is designed to help a patient keep an injured body part immobile. Typically, it is used to support a broken or sprained arm, and consists of a loop to go around the neck and a wide swath of cloth to hold the arm in. If a patient is advised to use one, a medical professional will decide can be removed. Many patients find slings useful, especially since the immobilization of an injured limb can greatly reduce pain.

The most common instance in which a sling is used is after orthopedic surgery, or before a surgery has been undertaken on a broken bone. On occasion, a medical professional will set a broken wrist, for example, in a temporary soft cast, with the intention of operating on it within a short period of time. By wearing a sling, the patient prevents further injury to the area, and reduces the amount of movement, which will in turn reduce the amount of pain felt.

In post-surgical applications, this device helps promote healing. While immobilized, the limb cannot strain stitches or pins that may be an important part of the healing process. In addition, it gives tendons a chance to heal if they have been torn or stretched too far. In extreme cases of orthopedic surgery that requires that a patient be held in traction, slings are frequently used on the legs to lift them up.

A sling may also be used by amputees or people with birth defects to keep the impacted limb out of the way. Especially when learning how to use a prosthetic device, the muscles of the limb are often heavily strained. This device allows the limb to rest when it is not in use, so that the patient can slowly develop skills with a prosthesis and the muscles to control it with.

The downside is that prolonged use is more likely to lead to muscle atrophy. After a sling is removed, a patient may be referred to a physical therapist to regain his or her full range of motion. In physical therapy, the tendons and muscles will be slowly stretched and lengthened so that the limb can be fully extended and contracted. In addition, exercises with light weights will be undertaken to build up the muscles so that they are even with the other side of the body.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By JackWhack — On Nov 21, 2012

My friend likes to go hunting, and he wears a rifle sling while he is walking through the woods. This makes it easier for him to lug the big gun around.

It is hard to carry that thing for miles if you are bearing all the weight in your arms. The sling allows his torso to bear the weight instead, and he can stay out there for much longer this way.

By Kristee — On Nov 20, 2012

@wavy58 – My dad had to wear a shoulder sling after he tore his rotater cuff. He had to do everything with his good arm for six weeks.

He did sleep with the sling on. He propped his arm up on a pillow to make himself more comfortable. Still, I believe that the pain medication was what really allowed him to get some sleep.

When it came time for him to dress himself, he had to take his arm out of the sling momentarily. He wore button front shirts to make the process easier, and he put his good arm through the sleeve first. This enabled him to use it to put his other arm through the next sleeve.

The worst part for him was probably the length of time he had to wear the sling. Six weeks seems like forever when everything you normally do suddenly becomes more complicated.

By wavy58 — On Nov 19, 2012

Do people who are recovering from surgery sleep with a sling on? I imagine that would be rather uncomfortable. I have trouble falling asleep when any little thing feels out of place, so I would probably be unable to sleep with a sling.

Also, how would a person wearing a sling manage to dress himself? Would he have to have someone there to help him? Does he have to wear special clothes that allow room for the sling?

I've never known anyone who had to wear one, so I am very curious about how it all works. I hope I never have to find out firsthand.

By healthy4life — On Nov 19, 2012

I think I would go crazy if I had to wear a sling for a long period of time! I know that whenever I hold my arm in one position for very long, it goes numb. I would hate to have a tingly arm for several weeks!

By Kat919 — On Jun 20, 2011

So what would be some ways to beat the muscular atrophy that comes with wearing a sling? I know the same thing happens with casts, so I would assume that there are ways to deal with that, but can anybody give me some more detail on this?

By ElizaBennett — On Jun 17, 2011

Don't forget about the other kinds of slings! My favorite--baby slings. A baby sling is a long piece of fabric threaded through two rings for adjustment that allows you to hold a baby--or toddler--comfortably for you both.

Caveat--baby slings must be used carefully with babies under four months old. Do not use a padded sling or one shaped like a bag (like the recalled Infantino Slingrider). Keep your baby in an upright position with his nose clear. High position is also important--whenever you are "wearing" your baby, you should be able to kiss the top of her head.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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