What Is a Frozen Shoulder?

Slowly developing pain and stiffness in the shoulder

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A frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, is a condition involving pain and stiffness in the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder (glenohumoral joint). It usually develops over time and can limit the functional use of your arm. The shoulder pain and tightness of a frozen shoulder may make it difficult to reach overhead.

People with diabetes, thyroid disease, and some other conditions are especially likely to develop frozen shoulder, and women have it more often than men. This condition is most common in people over 40.

Woman suffering from shoulder pain
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Frozen Shoulder Symptoms

Symptoms of frozen shoulder include:

  • Limited range of motion in the glenohumeral joint
  • Pain throughout the shoulder that may be dull or aching and may radiate into your upper arm
  • Pain that's triggered by even small movements

These symptoms can make it hard for you to perform simple activities like putting away dishes or combing your hair. You may have difficulty reaching behind your back to fasten your bra or grab your wallet from your back pocket. Putting on a belt may be painful as well.

The symptoms of frozen shoulder aren't due to weakness, but to actual rigidity in the joint. Not only can you not raise your arm, if someone else tries, they won't be able to lift it, either. Often, frozen shoulder goes away on its own, without treatment. The typical progression is through three stages:

  • Freezing stage: When the pain and restricted motion begin
  • Frozen stage: When motion is severely limited
  • Thawing stage: When the shoulder is starting to loosen up

However, it can take years to get to the thawing stage, so you're better off seeking treatment rather than just waiting to get better.

Causes

The cause of frozen shoulder isn't yet understood, but the condition is often tied to a systemic illness, including:

It's also associated with damage to the joint from injuries or other shoulder problems, such as:

Frozen shoulder related to any of these causes is considered secondary. In some cases, it can occur without there being any illness or injury and is considered primary or "idiopathic" frozen shoulder.

Diagnosis

While you need a healthcare provider for a firm diagnosis, you can get a pretty good idea of whether you have frozen shoulder with a simple self-test.

Self-Test

To perform the self-test, stand in front of a mirror or have someone watch you.

  1. Slowly raise both arms up in front of you and overhead. If you have a frozen shoulder, that arm may stop just slightly above parallel with the floor, your shoulder and shoulder blade will rise toward your ear unnaturally, and the motion may cause pain in the shoulder joint. Slowly lower your arms.
  2. Slowly lift your arm out to the side. If your shoulder only goes up to where it's level with the floor, and if it's painful, you may have a frozen shoulder. Your shoulder may also move up towards your ear like in the previous motion test.
  3. Stand with both arms at your sides and bend your elbows to 90 degrees. While keeping your elbows tucked in at your sides, rotate your arms outward. This direction of motion is called external rotation. If you have a frozen shoulder, the painful side will not rotate out as far as your non-painful arm.

At the Healthcare Provider's Office

If the self-test indicates a frozen shoulder, get an appointment with your healthcare provider or physical therapist. There are no special tests for diagnosing a frozen shoulder, and it doesn't show up on an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test. However, these kinds of imaging tests may be ordered to rule out other possible causes.

A frozen shoulder diagnosis is generally made by observing the range of motion in your shoulder, considering the two different types of range of motion:

  • Active range of motion is how far you can move a body part on your own.
  • Passive range of motion is how far someone else can move your body part.

Many causes of shoulder pain involve limits in only active range of motion, but with a frozen shoulder, it's passively limited as well.

By getting a diagnosis and treatment during the freezing stage, you may be able to keep it from progressing and shorten the time you have pain and functional limitations.

Treatment

Physical therapy for a frozen shoulder usually involves exercises to help decrease your pain and possibly to improve your shoulder's range of motion. Your physical therapist can teach you what to do and what to avoid.

Typically, strength is not affected when you have a frozen shoulder, but your physical therapist may work with you to help you improve the functional mobility of your arm.

Anti-inflammatory medications and corticosteroid injections also may be recommended to relieve pain. Using an ice pack for 15 minutes at a time may also help. Surgery for a frozen shoulder is rarely required but is an option in some cases.

A frozen shoulder is often caused by prolonged immobility following an injury. If you experience a shoulder injury that requires immobilization, speak with your healthcare provider about exercises to maintain the range of motion in your joint.

A Word From Verywell

A frozen shoulder can be a painful and frustrating experience, but many people get better quickly with a little guidance from a healthcare provider or physical therapist.

If you suspect you're developing a frozen shoulder, get in to see a healthcare provider soon so you can avoid what could be years of pain and limitations.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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