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What Is Frozen Shoulder and How Can I Thaw It?


WRITTEN BY: Sports Medicine
Monday, July 20th, 2015

Frozen shoulder is a painful condition that causes you to lose range of motion in your shoulder joint. The condition usually happens in three stages – freezing, frozen, and thawing. Each of these stages can last many months.

According to Albert Lin, MD, an orthpaedic surgeon at UPMC Sports Medicine, most people with frozen shoulder get better over time, but it can take a year or more to regain full motion. Thawing of the shoulder can usually be sped along with compliant simple stretches, sometimes through the direction of a physical therapist. A steroid injection may be helpful if therapy is not working. Surgical treatment to fix a frozen shoulder is less common.

What Are Signs of Frozen Shoulder?

Pain and stiffness are the most common symptoms, but the freezing generally happens slowly over many months.

  • Freezing – During the early stage, your shoulder will hurt with any movement. You may find your movements are limited and you may not be able to move your shoulder within a normal range of motion.
  • Frozen – At this point, your shoulder is stiff and tough to move, but the pain usually lessens on its own.
  • Thawing – The stiffness begins to fade and you can start moving your shoulder more normally.

How Does My Shoulder Freeze?

A capsule of connective tissue covers the bones, ligaments, and tendons of your shoulder joint. When this capsule thickens or scar tissue forms, it squeezes the joint and makes it more difficult to move.

The causes of frozen shoulder aren’t fully understood, but some health problems or injuries make it more likely.

Injuries where the treatment requires you to restrain your arm movement such as a broken bone, rotator cuff injury, stroke, or surgery, have a higher incidence of frozen shoulder. People with chronic diseases like diabetes, thyroid disease, cardiovascular disease, or Parkinson’s disease also are at higher risk.

How Do I Get Motion Back?

If your doctor suspects your shoulder stiffness is caused by frozen shoulder, he or she will likely perform an X-ray to make sure you don’t have arthritis or a broken bone.

For the majority of people, the shoulder will loosen up on its own, but may take months to even a year. Because of how long it may take for your symptoms to resolve, several conservative or nonsurgical treatments may be very helpful to speed the process along.

Nonsurgical or conservative treatments include over the counter medications, corticosteroid injections, or physical therapy. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, heat pads, and gentle stretching may help with pain. Corticosteriod injections also may be used to help control pain. Your doctor will often recommend physical therapy to help you regain some motion.

In severe cases, especially ones that do not improve with nonsurgical treatment, surgery may be considered. This includes performing shoulder manipulation under anesthesia to loosen the tissue or surgery to remove scar tissue inside the joint. Fortunately, this is usually less common.

Dr. Lin recommends applying heat or cold to control pain and loosen the joint and regularly performing exercises are the best ways to thaw a frozen shoulder.

If you think you may suffer from frozen shoulder or have limited range of motion due to an injury, visit our shoulder injuries page for more information and to schedule an appointment.

Sports Medicine

UPMC Sports Medicine is the region’s largest and most experienced program dedicated to treating, training, and inspiring athletes at levels, in all sports. Our physicians, surgeons, physical therapists, athletic trainers, sports nutrition, and sports performance experts are dedicated to helping athletes and active people recover from injuries, and even prevent them. Read More