What Is Frozen Shoulder? Signs You Have It and How to Treat It

Dealing with a stiff shoulder that suddenly feels hard to move? Learn more about what causes frozen shoulder and how to restore mobility.

Published Date: Nov 15, 2023
woman-with-pain-in-her-shoulder

What Is Frozen Shoulder? Signs You Have It and How to Treat It

Dealing with a stiff shoulder that suddenly feels hard to move? Learn more about what causes frozen shoulder and how to restore mobility.

Published Date: Nov 15, 2023
woman-with-pain-in-her-shoulder

What Is Frozen Shoulder? Signs You Have It and How to Treat It

Dealing with a stiff shoulder that suddenly feels hard to move? Learn more about what causes frozen shoulder and how to restore mobility.

Published Date: Nov 15, 2023
woman-with-pain-in-her-shoulder

What Is Frozen Shoulder? Signs You Have It and How to Treat It

Dealing with a stiff shoulder that suddenly feels hard to move? Learn more about what causes frozen shoulder and how to restore mobility.

Published Date: Nov 15, 2023
woman-with-pain-in-her-shoulder
Table of Contents

You might be brushing your hair, stirring food in a pot, or reaching for a book on a shelf when you realize that your shoulder is stiff, painful, and difficult to move. It may even seem like your shoulder is completely stuck in place.

This condition, known as frozen shoulder, is more common than you might realize, affecting up to 20% of the population at some point. Fortunately, exercise-based treatment can help to restore mobility in your shoulder. Take it from this Hinge Health member who found relief after physical therapy. 

"A year ago, I was recovering from Covid, which exacerbated my frozen shoulder due to lack of movement — it was frustrating because I couldn’t enjoy the things I like to do,” says the member. “A year later, I've helped paint a new garage, planted 10 new shrubs, and I've been biking with my daughter and hiking with my family. I couldn't have done any of that if I hadn't done my shoulder strengthening and stretching exercises.”

Read on to learn more about frozen shoulder — and find out how to feel better with tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists.  

Our Hinge Health Experts

Caitlin Shaw, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Shaw is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified sports clinical specialist.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is Frozen Shoulder?

Frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, happens when connective tissue in the shoulder thickens, says Caitlin Shaw, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. The shoulder is a ball-and socket-joint that consists of the humerus — upper arm bone — and the shoulder blade, also known as the scapula. The entire joint is surrounded by a fibrous sheath known as the joint capsule. When tissue in the capsule thickens, it limits the shoulder joint’s ability to rotate — this can cause pain, stiffness, and loss of motion in the joint. 

There are three stages of frozen shoulder:

  • Freezing: This refers to the onset of frozen shoulder, which usually occurs over the course of six to nine months, says Dr. Shaw. The pain gets progressively worse and may be intense. Meanwhile, the joint gets stiffer and stiffer. Some people don’t understand what’s happening during the freezing stage and attribute their shoulder pain to stress or hunching over a computer, says Dr. Shaw.

  • Frozen: By the time your shoulder is “frozen,” the pain might have diminished, but moving the joint will be difficult to impossible. “You might suddenly realize you can’t lift your arm up more than 90 degrees, which makes it hard to complete basic tasks like getting dressed or shampooing your hair,” says Dr. Shaw. 

  • Thawing: As you start to regain motion and strength in your shoulder, you’ll be on the road to recovery. 

Frozen Shoulder: A Hinge Health Perspective

Shoulder pain can be frustrating and feel limiting, especially when it persists or interferes with your daily activities. Some people develop frozen shoulder after the joint has been immobilized for a while, such as after surgery, says Dr. Shaw. But most people develop this condition for no clear reason at all.

This can be understandably disappointing. If you didn’t do anything “wrong,” why are you in pain or unable to move your shoulder? Rather than focus on the “why,” Dr. Shaw recommends focusing on all the things you can do to get better. Your shoulder may feel stuck in place, but you aren’t. You don’t need to know exactly how your frozen shoulder developed to treat it and begin healing. There’s a lot you can do to help improve mobility in your shoulder with targeted stretches and exercises. 

Although moving through shoulder pain can seem scary and uncomfortable, movement can yield big benefits. Gentle exercises and stretches that focus on the shoulder (and the muscles that support it) can help restore function so you can improve your quality of life and get back to the activities you enjoy.

What Causes Frozen Shoulder?

While it’s unclear why some people develop frozen shoulder and others don’t, there are some known risk factors for the condition, which include:

  • Age (40 and up)

  • Being female

  • Having diabetes, a thyroid disorder, Parkinson’s disease, or cardiovascular disease

  • Being immobile for an extended period, such as due to a surgery or illness

Treatment Options for Frozen Shoulder

The good news about frozen shoulder: Most people get better — and physical therapy can help a lot with speeding up your recovery, says Dr. Shaw. The more you can do to rehab and strengthen the shoulder joint with exercise, the faster you’ll regain mobility and be able to get back to activities you love. 

Physical Therapy for Frozen Shoulder

Physical therapy for frozen shoulder is especially important because people with this condition often try to compensate by relying too heavily on other muscles to help rotate the shoulder. This, in turn, can trigger additional symptoms elsewhere in the body, says Dr. Shaw. As you move through the freezing, frozen, and thawing stages, you may need to learn how to re-engage the shoulder muscles in a different way in order to keep them strong throughout treatment and recovery. “A physical therapist can give you advice on how to complete daily activities and maintain a good quality of life throughout the rehab process while your shoulder mobility may still be limited,” adds Dr. Shaw. 

Physical therapy is very effective for most people with frozen shoulder, she says. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Other Treatment Options for Frozen Shoulder 

Beyond physical therapy, the following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can also provide relief for frozen shoulder:

Over-the-counter medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for frozen shoulder pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

Steroid or fluid injections. If over-the-counter medication does not offer sufficient pain relief, your doctor may suggest cortisone steroid injections into the shoulder joint to help counter pain and inflammation. If that doesn’t help ease your pain, they might suggest hydrodilation — a procedure in which fluid is injected into the joint to stretch the joint capsule. 

Surgery. It’s reserved for rare cases, notes Dr. Shaw, but some people who remain in the frozen stage and don’t get better with other treatments may consider surgery. Talk to your doctor about whether you’re a good candidate for surgery. 

Exercises for Frozen Shoulder Relief

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  • Assisted Forward Arm Raise
  • Assisted Shoulder Rotation
  • Standing Shoulder Rotations

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Physical therapy for frozen shoulder centers on exercises that stretch and strengthen muscles that support the shoulder joint as you work toward regaining mobility. They’ll help you reach the “thawing” stage of recovery so you feel more comfortable moving through your shoulder’s full range of motion.  

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Be Patient and Get Informed

“Patience and education are key to recovering from frozen shoulder, which can be an understandably frustrating process,” says Dr. Shaw. “Lean on your physical therapist as a guide. We can tell you what’s normal and what’s not and help you figure out how to enjoy your life while you recover. A lot of patients with frozen shoulder want to be able to play with grandkids or prepare their favorite meals — a PT can help make that happen.” 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Frozen Shoulder. (n.d.). UCSF Health. Retrieved from https://www.ucsfhealth.org/conditions/frozen-shoulder

  2. Frozen Shoulder. (2022, August 19). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/frozen-shoulder/symptoms-causes/syc-20372684 

Athwal, G. S., & Widmer, B. (March 2018). Frozen Shoulder. OrthoInfo. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/frozen-shoulder/