A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Frozen shoulder: What is it and how is it treated?

A woman works on home improvements after recovering from frozen shoulder

Although frozen shoulder ca​​n often get better on its own, your physician will determine what stage of the condition the shoulder is in and may suggest a variety of treatment options.

It may start as mild pain or stiffness to the shoulder area, but frozen shoulder is a condition that can gradually worsen over time and take years to heal properly.

It is most common in women between 40-60 years old and has affected around 2 to 5% of people at some point in their life. The condition is found often in individuals with diabetes or thyroid disease. It also can occur in people who are recovering from a shoulder injury or surgery.

“One thing I always tell patients with frozen shoulder is ‘it may be frustrating, because it takes a long time to get better,’” said Dr. Adam Atkins, sports medicine physician at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “But, you do heal and recover fully, which often isn’t the case for similar conditions.”

For those suffering from frozen shoulder, a variety of treatment methods are available.

What causes frozen shoulder?

The shoulder capsule is a ligament that attaches the upper arm bone to the shoulder blade. When the condition occurs, the ligament adheres to itself and locks together – causing inflammation.

Symptoms often come in three stages:

  • Freezing stage:

“I often call this the ‘painful’ stage,” said Atkins. “Here your shoulder starts to feel really tight and can hurt a lot.” This stage may last between 6 to 9 months.

  • Frozen stage:

“At the frozen stage, some of the pain will subside, but your shoulder will feel very stiff and restricted,” Atkins said. This stage can last anywhere from 4 to 12 months.

  • Thawing stage:

During the final stage, your shoulder’s range of motion will start to go back to normal. However, this stage can possibly take 6 months to 2 years.

How is it treated?

Although frozen shoulder ca​​n often get better on its own, your physician will determine what stage of the condition the shoulder is in and may suggest options for treatment including:

Nonsur​​gical treatment

  • Medication:

The shoulder pain can often be managed using anti-inflammatory pills like ibuprofen or naproxen.

  • Physical therapy

A physical therapist may recommend a series of stretching exercises that can increase the range of motion of the shoulder. Atkins notes that therapists tend to recommend home exercise programs in these situations because of the length of the recovery process.

  • Cortisone injection

This is another option that may be recommended to reduce pain and improve mobility.

Surgery

In cases where nonsurgical treatments do not improve range of motion or reduce pain, your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure to correct the condition. A very low percentage of frozen shoulder cases require surgery.

  • Shoulder manipulation:

In this procedure, the patient is put under anesthesia and the doctor will force the shoulder to move. The shoulder capsule will stretch and increased range of motion may occur.

An orthopedic surgeon will make a number of small incisions around the shoulder and use a small camera and other instruments to cut through the areas of the capsule that are affected by the contraction.


If you are concerned about frozen shoulder or would like to learn more, contact your doctor or visit our Marshfield Clinic Health System website.

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