Your shoulder has a wider and more varied range of motion than any other joint in your body. This impressive functionality comes with a cost, however: The most mobile joint is also one of the least stable, and this inherent mobility-stability compromise means that the shoulder is far more vulnerable to injury than other joints.
One of the most frustrating shoulder injuries we treat at Sports Medicine Oregon is frozen shoulder, a painful and long-lasting problem that leaves your shoulder joint immobilized. If you’ve been diagnosed with this limiting condition, chances are you want to know how you can resolve it quickly — or if it will simply go away on its own over time.
Here, our team discusses the ins and outs of frozen shoulder, including treatment strategies that can reduce your pain, improve your range of motion, and eventually, help you restore complete shoulder mobility.
Making sense of frozen shoulder
To understand frozen shoulder, it’s important to know a few basic facts about shoulder joint anatomy. Your shoulder pivots on a ball-and-socket arrangement called the glenohumeral (GH) joint, which connects the top of your upper arm bone (humerus) to a scooped-out area of your shoulder blade (scapula) called the glenoid cavity.
The GH joint is surrounded and held together by a flexible envelope of tissue called the joint capsule. In a healthy shoulder joint, this resilient sheath has folds that expand and contract as you rotate, extend, or otherwise move your arm into various positions.
Frozen shoulder occurs when inflammation irritates the capsule and makes it swell, resulting in the development of stiff, band-like scars called adhesions. As adhesions build up over time, the capsule’s folds become rigid and tight, restricting GH joint movement and causing pain.
The medical term for frozen shoulder is adhesive (scarring) capsulitis (inflammation of the capsule).
Frozen shoulder risk factors
While it’s not always possible to determine the underlying cause of frozen shoulder, a few risk factors are associated with the condition. Frozen shoulder is more common in middle-aged adults and women as well as people with diabetes; in fact, up to 20% of people with diabetes develop frozen shoulder at some point.
Risk factors aside, many cases of frozen shoulder begin with an injury. Prolonged shoulder immobility — after an arm injury, for example — can lead to frozen shoulder, as can sustained shoulder inflammation from chronic conditions like rotator cuff tendinitis or bursitis.
A debilitating, three-stage problem
Persistent shoulder pain and immobility are the hallmark signs of frozen shoulder. These telltale symptoms occur to varying degrees, depending on the phase of the condition:
Phase 1 (freezing)
The first phase is defined by the slow onset of shoulder pain. As the pain worsens, the joint loses motion. This stage can last about 6 weeks or as long as 9 months.
Phase 2 (frozen)
The second phase typically lasts anywhere from 4 to 6 months. While your shoulder pain may improve noticeably during the frozen stage, debilitating joint stiffness remains.
Phase 3 (thawing)
In the final phase, joint mobility gradually returns until normal range of motion is nearly or fully restored. This stage can last anywhere from 6 months to 2 years.
How to reverse course more quickly
As you can see, frozen shoulder is a condition that can and usually does go away on its own in due course. However, this “due course” can be very long, painful, and physically limiting.
From onset to resolution, the typical timeline for frozen shoulder can be as short as one year, or as long as three years. So, what’s the difference between these two best- and worst-case scenarios? It all comes down to the right treatment approach.
While people who don’t seek treatment for frozen shoulder tend to live with the problem for at least two years, those who start and maintain a consistent treatment regimen are often able to put an end to shoulder pain and restore full joint function and range of motion within a year.
Most frozen shoulder cases respond very well to simple conservative care measures. To start reducing inflammation and alleviating your pain, you may ice your joint several times each day, take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, or receive corticosteroid injections.
The cornerstone of conservative care for a frozen shoulder — the key element that works to gradually restore your range of motion — is physical therapy. Flexibility exercises help stretch the joint capsule first, while strengthening exercises help stabilize the entire shoulder as GH joint function steadily improves.
If you’re living with frozen shoulder, we can help. Call your nearest Sports Medicine Oregon location in Tigard or Wilsonville, Oregon, today, or use the easy online booking tool to request an appointment with one of our experienced orthopedists any time.