Frozen shoulder is a common condition in older adults that causes immobility and shoulder pain. When your range of motion is compromised by a shoulder condition, it can make it difficult to do even the most basic activities like bathing, dressing and brushing your hair.

What causes frozen shoulder?

Also known as adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder occurs when connective tissue around the shoulder joint (called the shoulder capsule) tightens and becomes inflamed, causing pain and restriction of movement.

Frozen shoulder is most common in those over 40 years old. It’s a common complication of a rotator cuff tear or broken arm. Recent shoulder surgery or injury can increase your risk of frozen shoulder.

Certain diseases can also increase your likelihood of developing a frozen shoulder — such as diabetes, hyperthyroid, hypothyroid, cardiovascular disease and tuberculosis — and if you're recovering from a medical condition or procedure that prevents you from moving your arm, such as a stroke or a mastectomy.

Symptoms of frozen shoulder

Symptoms of frozen shoulder include pain, stiffness, swelling and immobility. The condition typically develops slowly with three stages:

  • Freezing stage — Any movement of your shoulder causes pain and your shoulder's range of motion starts to become limited.
  • Frozen stage — Pain may begin to diminish during this stage. However, your shoulder becomes stiffer and using it becomes more difficult.
  • Thawing stage — The range of motion in your shoulder begins to improve.

Frozen shoulder diagnosis and treatment

An orthopaedic specialist will perform a physical exam to evaluate your pain and range of motion and may order imaging, such as an X-ray, MRI or CT scan. Based on the results of your imaging, your provider will discuss personalized treatment options to help restore shoulder mobility and alleviate pain.

Most people will improve with nonsurgical treatment, which may include rest, medications to reduce inflammation and physical therapy. Some patients may require an injection of a corticosteroid to the shoulder.

Frozen shoulder is usually managed with surgery only after nonsurgical treatment has failed. Frozen shoulder surgery is usually done in an outpatient setting using minimally-invasive techniques. Your surgeon will make a few small incisions for the arthroscope, a camera that provides imagery to guide the surgeon and the surgical instruments. Using the arthroscope, the surgeon will remove scar tissue from the shoulder which causes the immobility.

Frozen shoulder recovery

At Main Line Health, we create a personalized plan for recovery from frozen shoulder with a goal of helping you regain shoulder mobility and alleviate pain as quickly as possible.

Patients who benefit from nonsurgical treatments can expect to regain mobility in the shoulder within a few months after initial diagnosis.

Following a surgical shoulder repair, your surgeon will prescribe outpatient physical therapy to help improve mobility. You’ll also be given exercises to do at home. Compliance with physical therapy is very important to improve shoulder mobility after surgery.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.