What is a Frozen Shoulder and How is it Treated?

Physical Therapy, Joint, Shoulder Injuries

Frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, causes pain and stiffness in the shoulder. With this condition, shoulder movements are reduced to the point where the shoulder is completely “frozen.”

This disorder can be debilitating, and patients often require physical therapy. Its signs and symptoms typically begin slowly and worsen over time.

Although the severity of symptoms varies from patient to patient, the condition usually resolves within one to three years. You could be at greater risk for frozen shoulder if you’ve had surgery or a medical condition that restricts you from moving your arm.

Let’s take a look at the signs, symptoms, and treatments for this painful condition.

Symptoms of Frozen Shoulder

Suffers will notice stiffness and pain in their shoulders. They often experience a restriction in range of motion as well.

Their symptoms can interfere with day-to-day activities. Sleeping, driving, and even dressing can become difficult. People may have difficulty with tasks at work.

Even simple movements, such as putting your hand in your back pocket or scratching your back, can become a chore.

The symptoms develop slowly, and there are three stages involved. Each stage can last months.

Phase One: Freezing Stage

At this stage, pain is often the first symptom. Stiffness and restriction of motion gradually worsen.

Pain is more severe during the night and can affect sleep. This phase often lasts between two and nine months.

Phase Two: Frozen Stage

At this stage, the pain usually eases, but the limited motion and stiffness may worsen. All shoulder movement, especially outward rotation, is affected.

There can be muscle wasting around the shoulder due to lack of use. This phase can last between four to 12 months.

Phase Three: Thawing Stage

At this stage, the remaining pain lessens, and stiffness and range of motion begin to improve. This occurs gradually and movement for most people returns to normal.

These stages and the duration of symptoms vary in length and severity from patient to patient. Without treatment, symptoms can persist for two or three years.

For some patients, the condition can resolve quickly. For others, the symptoms may persist for years.

Risk Factors

This condition will affect three percent of all adults at some point. People ages 40 to 65 are more likely to experience symptoms.

Frozen shoulder tends to affect women. The risk is higher in people with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s, and thyroid disease.

In general, the non-dominant shoulder is affected, although both shoulders can be involved. Around one in five individuals with the condition will develop it in both shoulders at some point.

Frozen shoulder is not arthritis, and other joints aren’t affected in any way.

What Causes This Condition?

The exact cause of the condition is unknown. It’s believed to be the result of a build-up of scar tissue in the shoulder capsule. The shoulder capsule tissue covers the shoulder joint.

Scar tissue causes the capsule over the shoulder joint to thicken, which results in limited movement. Health experts are not sure why this scar tissue occurs.

A frozen shoulder can occur after a shoulder injury. This is uncommon, however, and the cause for the majority of cases is not known.


If you think you may have this condition, it’s important to see your doctor. Diagnosis is usually made after an examination of your shoulder.

You may need an X-ray or imaging tests if the diagnosis isn’t clear. But most people will not need tests other than an examination for diagnosis.

Treatments That Can Help

The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and stiffness in the shoulder. You want to keep as much range of movement as possible in the affected shoulder while waiting for the condition to subside.

Pain Medicine

Doctors often prescribe painkillers for frozen shoulder. A doctor may prescribe a mild painkiller at first to see if it helps.

Codeine or stronger painkillers may be prescribed for persistent pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications may be used as well.

There are side effects with any medication, so be sure to read the information that comes with your prescription. Always stick to the recommended dosage.

Steroid Injections

Doctors may offer steroid injections as a treatment option. This injection in or near the shoulder joint can result in less pain for days or even weeks.

Steroids can help reduce inflammation, but this is just a temporary fix. The symptoms will return as the effects wear off.

Many patients choose to use steroid injections to ease their symptoms.

Other Possible Treatments

If traditional treatments don’t help, your doctor may recommend surgery. A popular option for treating frozen shoulder is manipulation.

With this procedure, the patient is under anesthesia while the surgeon manipulates the shoulder joint. Another surgical procedure that involves releasing the joint capsule can be performed as well.

These surgeries may help some patients, but don’t provide relief for everyone.

The good news is that most people with frozen shoulder will return to normal function eventually, even without treatment.

Physical Therapy

Exercising the affected shoulder is an important part of the treatment plan. The goal is to preserve the range of motion in the shoulder while waiting for it to heal.

A qualified physical therapist can help identify the right exercises for your condition. These should be performed regularly in order to work.

It’s important to consult your doctor or physical therapist before starting a training plan. Some exercises can make the pain worse. Avoid high-impact activities and movements that put stress on the shoulder joint.

If you’re suffering from a frozen shoulder, you want relief. You probably have questions about what exercises are safe.

We’d love to answer any questions you have and help you get back to your normal routine. Contact us today!

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