Frozen shoulder

Man with shoulder pain

​Frozen shoulder – or adhesive capsulitis – is characterized by pain, stiffness and difficulty moving the shoulder joint. The good news is almost all patients who receive treatment for frozen shoulder see a significant improvement in their symptoms. 

Frozen shoulder causes and risk factors

Frozen shoulder is most likely caused by scar tissue buildup in the joint. It can affect one or both shoulders. Risk factors for frozen shoulder include:

  • Experiencing a stroke, surgery or injury that prevents you from moving your arm for an extended period of time 

  • Being a female

  • Being over the age of 40 

  • Having diabetes

Frozen shoulder symptoms 

The symptoms of frozen shoulder include:

  • Difficulty moving or lifting your shoulder, such as when you are getting dressed or reaching for an item on a high shelf

  • Pain, swelling or numbness in the shoulder

  • Inability to do everyday activities that involve lifting the arm and other shoulder movements

Frozen shoulder prevention

If you have had a surgery or injury that prevents you from moving your arm, talk to your physician about ways to prevent frozen shoulder, such as at-home exercises or physical therapy to improve your range of motion. 

Frozen shoulder diagnosis

Frozen shoulder is usually diagnosed based on your symptoms—pain and/or difficulty moving your shoulder.

When you see your doctor for shoulder stiffness or pain, you can expect a physical exam to check your range of motion in the shoulder joint. During this exam, your doctor will ask you to move your shoulder to determine your active range of motion. 

In some cases, your doctor may inject numbing medication and then manually move your arm and shoulder to test your passive range of motion. He or she will compare the affected shoulder’s range of motion to that of the unaffected shoulder. 

Your doctor may also recommend imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or X-ray to rule out other conditions that may cause shoulder pain, stiffness and swelling, such as arthritis or torn rotator cuff

Frozen shoulder treatment 

Most patients respond well to treatment for frozen shoulder. Depending on your unique needs, your physician may recommend less invasive treatments like medication. For more serious cases, surgery may be necessary. 

At The Christ Hospital, treatment options for frozen shoulder include:

  • Medication. Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and aspirin can reduce pain and swelling, allowing the shoulder joint to regain mobility. 

  • Physical therapy. A physical therapist can provide customized exercises and stretches to build strength and flexibility so you can regain movement and reduce pain. 

  • Steroid injections. Your physician may recommend a cortisone injection in your shoulder joint, which sends strong anti-inflammatory medication directly to the source of the issue. Steroid injections reduce the pain and inflammation that can result from frozen shoulder.

  • Surgery. Often considered a last resort, surgical intervention may be needed to remove scar tissue and adhesions (thick bands of tissue) from inside the shoulder joint. 

At The Christ Hospital Health Network, our expert physicians and specialists have the experience and skill to diagnose and treat frozen shoulder so you can get back to the activities you enjoy. 

Find a shoulder specialist near you.