What is Frozen Shoulder?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Adhesive capsulitis or frozen shoulder is a condition affecting range of motion in the shoulder, and for which doctors fail to have an exact explanation of why it occurs. The condition has three stages: an early pain stage, where the shoulder feels painful and pain may inhibit range of motion of the shoulder, the frozen stage where shoulder movement may be very limited, and thawing stage when some range of motion is restored to the affected shoulder. Frozen shoulder tends to most commonly occur in people over 40, and may be more common among people with autoimmune diseases, thyroid problems, heart disease, and diabetes.

A packet of naproxen sodium pills, which can help with a frozen shoulder.
A packet of naproxen sodium pills, which can help with a frozen shoulder.

What’s really occurring when you have frozen shoulder is inflammation of the shoulder capsule, which is the connective tissue between the humerus (arm bone) and the shoulder bone (scapula). The swelling can reduce the normal amounts of fluid present to lubricate joints, which results in reduced ability to move the joint. Frozen shoulder usually affects only one shoulder but it can significantly and sometimes permanently impair movement to the point where it is almost impossible to do simple routine tasks, like moving a fork to your mouth or brushing your hair.

Chronic shoulder pain may be a sign of frozen shoulder syndrome.
Chronic shoulder pain may be a sign of frozen shoulder syndrome.

Initial symptoms of the condition, during the painful stage, definitely suggest a visit to your physician. Some physicians believe that earlier diagnosis of frozen shoulder is advantageous because a physical therapy regimen can immediately begin. This may help restore greater range of motion to the shoulder. Even when patients reach the thawing stage, not all range of motion will be restored to the affected joint, arm and shoulder. Early intervention bodes well for better recovery from this condition.

If your doctor suspects frozen shoulder, he or she will probably gain the most information by a simple physical exam to check your range of motion. Medical history, especially to check for any of the above mentioned conditions, will be considered and your doctor may also order x-rays or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test to specifically evaluate inflammation of the shoulder capsule. When diagnosis is confirmed, doctors usually refer patients to physical therapists to start immediately on range of motion exercises that can help restore greater function to the shoulder joint.

To address pain, doctors may consider prescribing non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDS) medications like ibuprofen or naproxen sodium, or other NSAIDS only available by prescription. To treat immediate pain, some doctors do inject steroids into the shoulder joint, but this treatment isn’t always recommended, and especially should not be repeated often. Some steroids may actually cause more harm to the shoulder joint, particularly if used frequently. Doctors may also prescribe alternating use of heat and cold to help alleviate inflammation. A few doctors recommend surgery to remove scar tissue from the shoulder joint.

Another possible treatment method for frozen shoulder is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. This treatment basically delivers tiny bursts of electricity along affected nerves via electrodes that are taped to your skin. It is thought this treatment may stimulate production of endorphins and relieve some pain. It won’t overall increase range of motion, but may be tried when patients are significantly affected during the pain stage.

The key to recovery from frozen shoulder is to keep maintaining as much movement in the affected shoulder as possible. Patients are advised to adhere to all recommendations by a physical therapist and to do any proposed exercises and stretches on schedule. Usually it is patients who don’t seek treatment that end up with significant impairment of the shoulder joint. To prevent this, zealously follow the exercise schedule your doctor or physical therapist suggests and keep, as pain or lack thereof permits, attempting to move the shoulder as much as possible. Even with rehabilitative therapy, some impairment of the joint may remain, but with carefully guided exercise, you have greatest likelihood of restoring greater range of motion and getting back the use of your arm and shoulder.

Early diagnosis of frozen shoulder is advantageous, because physical therapy to treat it can begin right away.
Early diagnosis of frozen shoulder is advantageous, because physical therapy to treat it can begin right away.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I am not sure how old these posts are but I really could use the advice. I fell at work and got a rotator cuff and labrum tear. Two months later, I was diagnosed with multiple blood clots in the arm. Now two months later, I've been diagnosed with a frozen shoulder. Because of the blood clots I cannot take any meds for the pain. Needless to say, it will drive you insane. I have gone to the vascular surgeon, said clots will not go away ever. So I am really scared thinking more clots will develop because of the immobility of the shoulder.


@ttrull: I got this message the other day and its been quite awhile actually about almost two years and at times I have completely forgotten about my injury and having a frozen shoulder!

It gets better. I was afraid of surgery but had months and months of physical rehabilitation. The only good thing I can say is eventually the pain goes away. You sound brave, especially considering you went so long with pain.

I remember it all too well. I don't know if you if had surgery and/or rehab yet but I know at times it is scary wondering will you ever get better. But there is a lot of information out there, so stay positive.

I took vicodin so much I thought I would be addicted, but I eventually stopped and the only thing that is mysterious is during weather changes sometimes I'll have slight pain, not really noticeable, but good luck and I hope this message finds you and helps somewhat.


Brad, I am new to this site as of today so I hope your concerns are not months old. I will briefly tell you my story.

My husband and I were in a car accident in December. We were out of town shopping and a girl on her cell phone did not see us and slammed us on the passenger side. I saw that we were going to be hit, so I braced for the impact which I now know was the worst thing to do. After the wreck, quite simply I felt as if I had been beaten on the right side of my body so when my shoulder and arm starting getting worse, I again chalked it up to recovery from the accident. Boy how wrong I was.

I made it through January and February and as March came in, I had little to no use of my right arm. I then contacted a bone and joint surgeon who immediately sent me for an MRI. What they showed me was that I had a rotator cuff tear and that my shoulder was completely frozen which would require surgery to manipulate it.

Wow, that is a lot but if you do happen to see my post, or if anyone else with frozen shoulder would like to talk, I sure could use some support myself.


If anyone has any advice on frozen shoulder I'd gladly take it. I feel really alone in this. I fractured my shoulder and thought i just bruised myself thought being 36 couldn't be more than that! But alas it happened, and its been about 7 weeks now. At first the pain was so tremendous I didn't use my shoulder, unfortunately I didn't know anything about this. I am really sensitive to cortisone or steroids so I'm currently taking relefen, and vicodin for pain. Its not torn underneath from the mri results but I'm scared as heck any advice would be appreciated, so far I'm starting physical therapy slowly my pain threshold is not great, just like to know your experiences. thank you.

Post your comments
Forgot password?