Frozen shoulder

Frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis, is a condition that causes stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint, and is not a sign of arthritis.

Signs and symptoms begin gradually, but the condition worsens over time, making it very difficult to move your shoulder. Frozen shoulder can resolve itself, but it takes up to three years. We can provide immediate treatment for quick healing.

What is frozen shoulder?

With frozen shoulder, the shoulder capsule thickens and thick bands of connective tissue, called adhesions, develop. In many cases, there is also less synovial fluid in the joint. This causes severe pain over the outer shoulder area, the shoulder blade area and the upper arm bone, and the inability to move your shoulder, even with help.

Frozen shoulder follows three stages of symptoms, and if untreated can seriously restrict movement in your shoulder for one to three years.

Get an expert diagnosis

If you have symptoms of frozen shoulder, make an appointment with your UCHealth provider, who will properly diagnosis frozen shoulder, give you medical advice, and design a treatment plan to heal your shoulder much quicker than three years.

Our primary treatment recommendation is physical therapy with a focus on shoulder flexibility, but your case is unique and we can provide any other treatment you might need, including surgery

Orthopedic specialists don’t fully understand the causes of frozen shoulder. There is no clear connection to arm dominance or occupation. We do know that frozen shoulder most commonly affects people between the ages of 40 and 60, and it occurs more often in women. In addition, people who have diabetes are at increased risk of developing frozen shoulder.

Frozen shoulder develops in three stages:

  1. Freezing. You have increasing pain, and as it worsens, your shoulder loses range of motion. Freezing typically lasts from six weeks to nine months.
  2. Frozen. Pain may improve during this stage, but the stiffness remains and daily activities may be very difficult. Frozen typically lasts from four to six months after the Freezing stage.
  3. Thawing. Shoulder motion slowly improves, and strength and motion can return to normal, or close to normal, after another six months to two years.

Frozen shoulder tends to hurt more at night due to pressure on the shoulder from sleeping positions. Placing a pillow between that arm and your body might help lessen the discomfort.

Non-surgical approaches

Most of our patients with frozen shoulder improve with simple non-surgical treatments that control pain and restore motion:

  • Corticosteroid injections. May help decrease pain and improve shoulder mobility, especially in the early stages of the process.
  • Hydrodilatation or joint distension. Your orthopedic provider injects sterile water into the joint capsule to help stretch the tissue and make it easier to move the joint.
  • Medications. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin and ibuprofen can help reduce pain and inflammation associated with frozen shoulder. Your doctor may prescribe stronger pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory drugs.
  • Physical therapy. A physical therapist will teach you range-of-motion exercises to help recover mobility in your shoulder. Your commitment to physical therapy is key to its success.

Surgical approaches

If these do not work, your doctor may recommend surgery. This is typically offered during stage two, Frozen. The most common approaches include:

  • Arthroscopic surgery. Your surgeon inserts pencil-sized instruments through small incisions around your shoulder to access the joint and remove scar tissue and adhesions.
  • Manipulation under anesthesia. Your doctor moves your shoulder joint in different directions to help loosen the tightened tissue. You would receive a general anesthetic so you’ll be unconscious and feel no pain.

These procedures are usually successful, and we might use a combination of manipulation and arthroscopy to achieve the best results for your case.

Mother holding baby near sunlit windowPhysical therapy typically works as a treatment, and if surgery was performed, physical therapy is necessary to maintain the motion that was achieved.

Stay committed to your therapy regimen, and you can expect a good outcome—recovery typically takes from six weeks to three months. Our orthopedic specialists are ready to help you get back to all the activities you enjoy.