What is Frozen Shoulder, and What Can You Do About It?

Also known as adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder is a condition characterized by stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint. Typically a person with frozen shoulder will go through three stages:

  1. The Freezing Stage — A pain (sometimes severe) develops in the shoulder. The condition gets worse over time, and shoulder mobility becomes limited. This stage can last six to nine months.
  2. The Frozen Stage — The pain may get better, but stiffness increases and it becomes difficult to move the shoulder. Everyday activities are impacted. This stage can last four to twelve months.
  3. The Thawing Stage — Range of motion slowly returns to normal. This stage can take anywhere from six months to two years.

Overall, an untreated case of frozen shoulder can last anywhere from one to three years before eventually resolving itself.

What causes Frozen Shoulder?

Physiologically speaking, frozen shoulder results from a thickening and tightening of the capsule of connective tissue surrounding the bones, ligaments, and tendons of the shoulder joint.

But what causes that thickening? Well, doctors aren’t sure. But certain factors can increase your risk:

  • Women get frozen shoulder more often than men, as do people over 40.
  • Prolonged immobility may lead to frozen shoulder. For example, people recovering from rotator cuff surgery, a broken arm, mastectomy, or a stroke are at higher risk.
  • Certain diseases also are associated with increased likelihood of frozen shoulder, including diabetes, hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

Can Frozen Shoulder be prevented?

Since one of the more common causes of frozen shoulder is prolonged immobility, it follows that certain range of motion exercises might be helpful. If you’re recovering from a surgery or other condition that limits your mobility, speak with your doctor about exercises that are appropriate for your condition.

What are the treatment options for Frozen Shoulder?

If you’ve been diagnosed with Frozen Shoulder, once again range of motion exercises prescribed by your doctor or a physical therapist will be key to your recovery. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin or Ibuprofin) can help with pain relief. In some cases, injections of corticosteroids or numbing medications may be prescribed. Another possibility for stubborn cases is joint distension, which involves injecting sterile water into the joint capsule to help stretch the tissue and make it easier to move.

In only a small number of cases is arthroscopic surgery called for to loosen the joint capsule. Patience, gentle movement, and time is often more effective than surgical measures.