What Is Frozen Shoulder?

If you experience shoulder pain during movement and at rest, you may be suffering from frozen shoulder. We explain the condition, and its treatment.


Frozen shoulder affects two to five percent of people at some point during their life; women are at higher risk for this condition than men are. Although the exact cause of frozen shoulder is unknown, we do know that risk factors for this painful condition include diabetes, thyroid disorder, a history of shoulder injuries, and periods of shoulder immobilization. You may be at higher risk if you are recovering from a medical condition or procedure that affects the mobility of your arm, such as a stroke or a mastectomy.

Research suggests that this condition begins with an inflammation of the lining of the shoulder joint. Gradually, the lining thickens, the shoulder becomes stiffer, and pain increases.

The progression of frozen shoulder moves through three stages that can occur over one to two years.

  • Pain stage. The shoulder is very painful during use and when the patient is at rest. This stage can last between four to nine months, and is characterized by an increase in shoulder stiffness over time.
  • Frozen stage. The shoulder remains very stiff and painful when the patient attempts to use it, but pain dissipates when the shoulder is at rest. This stage can last from four months to a year.
  • Thawing stage. Slowly, the patient regains the ability to move the shoulder over a period of several months.

Frozen shoulder won’t appear on X-rays, and is usually made through physician diagnosis and review of the patient’s medical history. An examination and comparison of the range of motion between the affected shoulder and the normal shoulder usually confirms the condition.

Treating frozen shoulder requires tremendous patience. Recovery is slow, and relatively few medical shortcuts are available to restore shoulder motion. During the pain stage, medication and cortisone shots may be used to control the patient’s discomfort. A physical therapy program of stretching will help to limit the loss of shoulder motion in the early stages of the condition, and restore lost shoulder motion when the shoulder moves into the frozen stage. Surgery is rarely necessary for frozen shoulder, and should only be considered after the majority of shoulder pain has resolved, and if the patient is unable to reclaim range of motion.

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