Frozen Shoulder

What is Frozen Shoulder?

Most common in women and adults 40 to 65 years of age, frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) is a condition that can make shoulders difficult to move due to pain and stiffness.

Unlike arthritis, frozen shoulder isn’t the result of inflammation creating pressure on joints. While the condition sometimes goes away on its own over time, healing may be a lengthy process without some type of treatment.

What are the Symptoms of Frozen Shoulder?

There are usually 3 stages of frozen shoulder: freezing (usage limits, pain), frozen (stiffness, no pain, usage limitations), and thawing (improvement of frozen shoulder).

Symptoms include:

  • Dull or aching shoulder pain
  • Pain extending to the arm near the affected shoulder
  • Stiffness and limitation of movement

Frozen Shoulder Causes

Frozen shoulder can be caused by a variety of conditions and lifestyle choices. If often occurs in three-phases: freezing, frozen, and thawing. During the first stage, range of motion is reduced and increased pain is experienced. In the second stage, discomfort may lessen while stiffness remains. The final stage is characterized by a gradual improvement and reduction in stiffness. The exact cause of the condition isn’t known. Scar tissue forming in either shoulder may be a contributing factor.

In general, it is caused by inflammation that causes the shoulder to be painful. This inflammation causes a loss of motion. Often, there is no cause found for the condition to develop. In other cases, it can be caused by the shoulder being immobilized because of an injury to the area. Those who have thyroid problems, diabetes, a cervical disk disease or have major hormonal changes are more at risk of this condition. Other conditions that come with a higher risk include Parkinson’s disease, tuberculosis, and heart disease. Patents who have had open-heart surgery in the past are also susceptible. Women who are between 40 and 70 years old and are most at risk of developing it.

Many people who have had to immobilize a shoulder because of a fracture or surgery may find that it becomes stiffer and more painful afterward. Any reduced mobility in the area may lead to this condition. Immobilization or reduced mobility may be because of a stroke, an injury to the rotator cuff, from a broken arm or from surgery recovery.

How is Frozen Shoulder Treated?

Following a physical exam, diagnosis includes image testing to identify the extent of the soft tissue damage. Treatment usually starts with over-the-counter or prescription painkillers, which are only meant to be used short-term. If nearby muscles and tendons are affected, anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed.

Treatments include:

  • Cortisone injections directly into the shoulder joint
  • Physical therapy to strengthen shoulder muscles
  • Manipulation under anesthesia to release tightening
  • Shoulder arthroscopy to cut tight parts of the affected tissues

Frozen shoulder affects about 15 percent of people who are diabetic, a connection that has no known explanation. It may also develop as a result of other conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and thyroid issues. Patients who have had unrelated surgery involving bed rest or bracing sometimes develop frozen shoulder from prolonged periods of immobilization.

Frozen Shoulder Prevention

For cases that have unknown causes, it may not be possible to prevent this condition from developing. For many patients, there are a few actions that can be taken to avoid it. Lifting items that are too heavy can cause arm and shoulder injuries, and this can lead to frozen shoulder.

Always realistically assess what you can and can’t lift. Keep good posture, standing and sitting with your back straight to avoid stress on your neck and shoulders. Lifting weights and doing resistance exercises to build strength in your arms and shoulders can help you to prevent this condition. Staying flexible through the use of regular stretches can also be helpful in preventing it.

Frozen Shoulder
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Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
June 13, 2018