The medical term for a frozen shoulder is called adhesive capsulitis. The condition causes pain and stiffness in the shoulder and over time will cause the shoulder very difficult to move. The condition worsens over time and will usually resolve within one or two years. Doctors are not sure what triggers a frozen shoulder but find that it’s more likely in people who recently had to immobilize their shoulder for an extended period of time, like after an arm was broken.
There are three stages to the condition which involves the freezing, frozen and then thawing. During the freezing stage there is more pain and loss of range of motion. This stage will often last from 6 weeks to around 9 months. There are no predictable patterns, only that most people have gone through this phase by 9 months.
During the frozen stage the pain is actually much better but the stiffness remains. Movement in this stage is very difficult and will last for 4 to 12 months. Sometimes you’ll have more pain at night which disrupts sleeping and increases the perception of pain. Because of the lack of movement, shoulder and upper arm muscles will start to atrophy, or get smaller through lack of use.
The last phase is thawing or recovery. During this time the shoulder starts to move on its own and range of motion increases. The pain may fluctuate as the stiffness eases and you gain more movement. This recovery is often spontaneous, meaning it happens without treatment. However, with some intra-articular (in the joint) steroid injections and persistent physical therapy, some patients have experienced better outcomes and little to no functional disabilities.
During the final phase of the condition, it is important to restore normal range of motion. Ice packs to reduce inflammation and pain, anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy are the treatments of choice. With the expertise of a physical therapist you can learn how far to push yourself during stretching and the appropriate exrcises to use. Once you have learned your PT program, you should be doing the majority of the work at home.
During this period of time it’s important not to overdo your program. Limit any overhead reaching, lifting or anything that aggravates the pain. The old adage of “no pain, no gain” is not applicable in this case. Full recovery can take up to 3 years.
Sports Injury Clinic: Frozen Shoulder
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