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Frozen Shoulder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Have you ever experienced stiffness and pain in your shoulder that seemed to come out of nowhere? If so, you may have a condition known as frozen shoulder, also called adhesive capsulitis.

Frozen shoulder is a common but often misunderstood condition that can significantly impact your daily activities and quality of life. In this blog post I will delve into the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for frozen shoulder to help you better understand and manage this diagnosis.

What is Frozen Shoulder?

Frozen shoulder is a condition characterized by stiffness, pain, and limited range of motion of the shoulder joint. It typically develops gradually over time. While the exact cause of frozen shoulder is not always clear, it is believed to occur due to inflammation and thickening of the capsule surrounding the shoulder joint, leading to the tightening of the joint capsule and restricted shoulder motion.

Causes of Frozen Shoulder

Several factors can contribute to the development of frozen shoulder including:

  • Injury or Trauma: A shoulder injury or trauma, such as a fall or fracture, can increase the risk of developing frozen shoulder.
  • Prolonged Immobilization: Immobilizing the shoulder joint for an extended period, such as after surgery or injury, increase your risk for developing frozen shoulder
  • Underlying Health Conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, thyroid disorders, and cardiovascular disease, have been associated with an increased risk of developing frozen shoulder.
  • Age and Gender: Frozen shoulder is more common in individuals between the ages 40 and 60, and is also more prevalent in women than men 

Symptoms of Frozen Shoulder

The hallmark symptoms of frozen shoulder include:

  • Pain: Persistent pain in the shoulder joint, especially during movement or at rest.
  • Stiffness: Gradual onset of stiffness in the shoulder joint, making it difficult to perform daily activities such as reaching overhead or behind the back.
  • Limited Range of Motion: Reduced range of motion in the shoulder joint, making it challenging to move the arm in various directions.
  • Difficulty Sleeping: Discomfort and difficulty finding a comfortable sleeping position due to shoulder pain and stiffness.

Treatment Options for Frozen Shoulder

Treatment for frozen shoulder aims to relieve pain, improve range of motion, and restore function to the affected shoulder. Depending on the severity of the condition, treatment options may include:

  • Physical Therapy: stretching exercises guided by a physical therapist are the primary treatment for frozen shoulder.  This helps stretch out the thickened tissue and improve the mobility of the shoulder joint.
  • Pain Management: Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, may be recommended to alleviate shoulder pain
  • Corticosteroid Injections: In some cases, corticosteroid injections into the shoulder joint can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain
  • Joint Manipulation: Manipulation of the shoulder joint under anesthesia may be performed to break up adhesions and improve range of motion.
  • Surgery: In severe cases, where conservative treatments have failed to provide relief, surgical intervention through an arthroscopic capsular release may be necessary. During surgery the tight and thickened capsular tissue is cut which allows the shoulder joint to move again. 

Most patients with frozen shoulder improve without needing surgery, but it is often an extended recovery process lasting up to 12 months.  

Frozen shoulder is a challenging condition that can significantly impacts daily life, but with proper diagnosis and treatment, most patients can experience significant improvement in symptoms and function without requiring surgery. If you're experiencing persistent shoulder pain or stiffness, it's essential to consult with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for frozen shoulder, you can take steps to manage the condition and get back to doing the activities you love.

Peter Adamson, MD
Peter Adamson, MD

Peter Adamson, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician with CHI Health Orthopedics.

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