What is frozen shoulder?

Frozen shoulder: Overview

Frozen shoulder is stiffness, pain, and trouble moving your shoulder. It may happen after an injury or overuse, or from a disease such as diabetes or a stroke. You may have pain that keeps you from using your shoulder. However, you need to move your shoulder. If you do not move it, it will get more stiff and sore. Your doctor may order an X-ray to make sure there is not another cause for your stiff shoulder.

You can treat frozen shoulder with heat, stretching, over-the-counter pain medicines, and physical therapy. Your doctor also may inject medicine into your shoulder to reduce pain and swelling. It can take a year or more to get better. Surgery is almost never needed.

Adhesive capsulitis

Adhesive capsulitis is an inflammatory condition that restricts motion in a joint. It most often affects the shoulder joint, a condition called frozen shoulder.

The tissues around the joint stiffen, scar tissue forms, and any shoulder movement becomes difficult and painful. Any shoulder problem, such as an injury or surgery, can lead to frozen shoulder if a person does not move the shoulder through its full range of motion during treatment. Adhesive capsulitis can also be caused by some conditions such as diabetes or a stroke.

Adhesive capsulitis can be treated with over-the-counter pain medicines and physical therapy, and with steroid injections if needed. Surgery is rarely used.

What are the symptoms of frozen shoulder?

When you have frozen shoulder, the tissues around the joint stiffen, scar tissue forms, and shoulder movement becomes difficult and painful. These problems limit the shoulder's range of motion.

How is frozen shoulder treated?

Treatment for frozen shoulder usually starts with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and application of heat to the affected area, followed by gentle stretching. Ice and medicines (including corticosteroid injections) may also be used to reduce pain and swelling. And physical therapy can help increase your range of motion. A frozen shoulder can take a year or more to get better.

If treatment is not helping, surgery is sometimes done to loosen some of the tight tissues around the shoulder. Two surgeries are often done. In one surgery, called manipulation under anesthesia, you are put to sleep and then your arm is moved into positions that stretch the tight tissue. The other surgery uses an arthroscope to cut through tight tissues and scar tissue. These surgeries can both be done at the same time.

What can you do to prevent frozen shoulder?

Gentle, progressive range-of-motion exercises, stretching, and using your shoulder more may help prevent frozen shoulder after surgery or an injury. Experts don't know what causes some cases of frozen shoulder, and it may not be possible to prevent these. Be patient and follow your doctor's advice. Frozen shoulder nearly always gets better over time.

How is frozen shoulder diagnosed?

Your doctor may suspect frozen shoulder if a physical exam reveals limited shoulder movement. An X-ray may be done to see whether symptoms are from another condition such as arthritis or a broken bone.

How can you care for yourself when you have a frozen shoulder?

  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • Put a heating pad set on low or a warm, wet towel wrapped in plastic on your shoulder. The heat may make it easier to stretch your shoulder.
  • Follow your doctor's advice for stretches and exercises.
  • Go to physical therapy if your doctor suggests it.
  • Try these stretching exercises to reduce stiffness if your doctor says it is okay. Do the exercises slowly to avoid injury. Put a warm, wet towel on your shoulder before exercising. Stop any exercise that increases pain.
    • Pendulum exercise. While leaning forward and holding onto a table or the back of a chair with your good arm, bend at the waist, allowing your affected arm to hang straight down. Swing the affected arm back and forth like a pendulum, then in circles that start small and gradually grow larger as pain allows. Try this for about 2 or 3 minutes, several times a day. Once pain begins to go away, you can do this exercise while holding a 1- or 2-pound weight.
    • Wall climbing (to the side). Stand with your side to a wall so that your fingers can just touch it. Then turn so your body is turned slightly toward the wall. Walk the fingers of your injured arm up the wall as high as pain permits. Hold that position for a count of 15 to 30 seconds. Walk your fingers down to the starting position. Repeat 2 to 4 times, trying to reach higher each time.
    • Wall climbing (to the front). Face a wall, standing so your fingers can just touch it. Walk the fingers of your affected arm up the wall as high as pain permits. Hold that position for a count of 15 to 30 seconds. Slowly walk your fingers to the starting position. Repeat 2 to 4 times, trying to reach higher each time.

What causes frozen shoulder?

Frozen shoulder can develop when you stop using the joint normally because of pain, injury, or a chronic health condition, such as diabetes or a stroke. Any shoulder problem can lead to frozen shoulder if you do not work to keep full range of motion.

Frozen shoulder occurs:

  • After surgery or injury.
  • Most often in people 40 to 70 years old.
  • More often in women (especially in postmenopausal women) than in men.
  • Most often in people with chronic diseases.

What is frozen shoulder?

Frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) is stiffness, pain, and limited range of movement in your shoulder. The tissues around the joint stiffen, scar tissue forms, and shoulder movements become hard to do and painful. The condition usually comes on slowly. And then it goes away slowly over the course of a year or more.

Frozen shoulder: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have severe pain.
  • Your arm is cool or pale or changes color.
  • You have tingling or numbness in your arm.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have increased pain.
  • You have new pain that develops in another area. For example, you have pain in your arm, hand, or elbow.
  • You do not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.