What is Frozen Shoulder?


Is your shoulder stiff and painful? You may have a frozen shoulder. Luckily, it’s easily treated.

Your shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in your body. It allows you to move your arm in many different directions, enabling you to do everyday tasks and exercise. Because of its versatility, it’s also extremely vulnerable to injury or painful orthopedic conditions, including adhesive capsulitis, or frozen shoulder.

Frozen shoulder begins with a constant dull ache in the joint, progressing to stiffness and a limited range of motion. The condition develops over a long period and sometimes resolves on its own within months. It’s estimated that 5-20% of the population will experience a frozen shoulder at one time. However, with proper diagnosis and treatment, you can unlock your frozen shoulder and get it moving freely again.

A look into your shoulder and what causes it to freeze

The shoulder is what is known as a ball-and-socket joint in which the top rounded end of the upper arm bone (humerus) locks into a hollowed-out part of the shoulder blade, or scapula. This structure is what gives it its mobility. 

It’s also aided by the rotator cuff, which is a complex network of tendons and ligaments that hold the bones of the joint together. Bursae, or fluid-filled sacs, protect the bones and tendons during movement. In addition, synovial fluid lubricates the joint so it can move freely. 

Given its structure and functionality, your shoulder can easily become inflamed from overuse injuries, such as bursitis or tendonitis in the rotator cuff. Having your shoulder immobile for a long stretch, such as after an injury or hospitalization, can also cause the joint to freeze up. People with diabetes have a higher chance of developing frozen shoulder, as well.

Treatments to thaw a frozen shoulder

To diagnose a frozen shoulder, your orthopedist will move your arm to judge its range of motion. Imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, may be done to rule out other conditions, such as arthritis or a rotator cuff tear.

Once diagnosed, treatment may start with anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen and aspirin. A steroid injection into the joint may also be prescribed. 

The most effective treatment for frozen shoulder is physical therapy to lessen pain and improve range of motion. Before exercising, warm your muscles in a warm bath or with a heating pad. During the exercise program, avoid strenuous overhead activities that could irritate the joint.

The treatment begins under the supervision of a physical therapist and continues at your home with these stretching and strengthening exercises. 

Pendulum stretch. While standing, lean over slightly and hang your affected arm down. Swing your arm in a circular motion. Do 10 rotations in each direction at least once a day. As you get more comfortable, you can increase the radius of your motion.

Towel stretch. Grasp a towel at least three feet in length behind you. Place it in a horizontal position at first and then pull the towel upward with your unaffected arm to stretch the stiff shoulder. Do this 10 to 20 times a day.

Outward and inward rotation. As your range of motion improves, you can try these rotator cuff strengthening exercises. For outward rotation, hold a rubber exercise band in your hands, keeping your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Rotate the lower part of the affected arm two to three inches outward. Hold for 15 seconds. Do this 10 to 15 times each day. For the inward rotation, wrap one end of the rubber band around a doorknob. Keeping your elbow at a 90-degree angle, clutch the other end of the band in the hand of your affected arm and pull it toward your body by about two to three inches. Hold for five seconds and repeat 10 to 15 times a day.

These treatments will usually unlock a frozen shoulder in no time. Only if they fail will you need surgery to loosen up the joint capsule.

A frozen shoulder may resolve on its own. But that could take many months. If your frozen shoulder hampers your daily activities or exercise routine, see an orthopedic specialist or physical therapist for treatment to speed up the healing process and get your shoulder moving again.

We treat shoulders

At New York Bone & Joint Specialists, we treat a variety of shoulder conditions, including frozen shoulder. We’ll develop a plan using physical therapy and other treatments to get your shoulder moving freely again. Contact us for a consultation.

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