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Facts on frozen shoulders

A woman holds an ice pack to her shoulder

Sometimes shoulders get nearly frozen. Exercises and medicines usually help.

The shoulder is the most movable joint in the whole body—unless you have adhesive capsulitis. Also known as frozen shoulder, this condition gradually reduces how much you can move your arm around.

Treatment can help reduce the pain and movement limitations that come with this condition.

Symptoms of frozen shoulder

Frozen shoulder generally happens in three stages. These stages are sometimes referred to as freezing, frozen and thawing.

During the freezing stage, the shoulder starts to ache and feel stiff. Pain becomes worse with movement and is often worst at night.

In the frozen stage, the shoulder doesn't hurt quite as much, but stiffness worsens. During the four to six months of this stage, daily activities may be very difficult.

The thawing stage marks a gradual return of motion. This can take months or years, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).  

Who's at risk?

Doctors don't know the exact cause of frozen shoulder, according to the AAOS.

Whatever the cause, the result is abnormal bands of tissue between joint surfaces and a lack of the fluid that normally lubricates the joint to help the arm move.

Frozen shoulder occurs more often in women than in men, and the condition usually shows up between ages 40 and 60, the AAOS says. People with diabetes, heart disease, thyroid problems or Parkinson's disease are at higher risk. The condition can also develop after an injury or surgery.

Treatment can help

If your doctor suspects frozen shoulder, he or she may ask about your symptoms, watch the way you move, press on parts of your shoulder or order tests. Common tests used to diagnose shoulder problems include x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound scans.

Once frozen shoulder is confirmed, treatment usually begins with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen or aspirin), heat and gentle stretching, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Ice therapy, corticosteroid injections and physical therapy may also be used.

In rare cases when other treatments don't work, a doctor may recommend surgery to cut the abnormal tissues.

In time, while you may not get a full range of motion back, you should be able to return to many of the activities you enjoyed before frozen shoulder, according to the AAOS.

Reviewed 8/15/2023

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