A comprehensive guide to dealing with frozen shoulders

A frozen shoulder inhibits movement, causes pain and disrupts daily activities. Here, we delve into details of this condition and how to “thaw” a shoulder that freezes up…

Everyone experiences shoulder pain once in a while. Whether it’s caused by sleeping in the wrong position, driving for too long or carrying a heavy backpack, the condition afflicts many. However, there might be times when it gets to the point where our shoulders cannot move freely and the pain is unusually intense. Eventually, we find our shoulders locked as if they are paralyzed.

The condition is known as frozen shoulder or, if you want to get technical about it, adhesive capsulitis. Besides limiting shoulder movement, it also causes serious pain. But just like frozen food, a frozen shoulder can be “thawed,” although the process takes a long time. Years, even. So, it pays to be prepared and learn about frozen shoulders, its symptoms and the possible remedies for this condition.


Orthopedic surgeon Pietro Tonino, in an article for Sports Health, explains that frozen shoulders occur when our shoulder joint capsule becomes inflamed. This leads to the thickening of shoulder ligaments which results in scar tissue. The balls of our joints require enough space inside the capsule to freely rotate, but the presence of scar tissue can cause the space to become smaller. This, in turn, gradually stiffens the shoulder and makes any attempt at movement with it painful.

Frozen shoulders can also happen when our body doesn’t produce enough synovial fluid that lubricates the shoulder joint. Think of your joint system as a set of gears like the ones in a car. Much like mechanical gears, our shoulder joints need lubrication to run smoothly and, without it, the gears will become damaged due to friction. The same concept applies to our joints. Without synovial fluids, the joints will endure excessive friction and, as a result, its movements will be highly limited.

“The condition ‘freezes’ the shoulder joint, making it difficult, if not impossible, to move the shoulder or upper arm”

The exact causes of frozen shoulders are unfortunately still unknown. However, in an article for Halodoc, dr. Rizal Fadli notes that there are a number of risk factors. Women and people over 40 years old are at greater risk, so are those with systemic illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. Shoulder inactivity for long periods of time, whether due to injury or a sedentary lifestyle, is another contributing factor. In addition, NHS Ayrshire & Arran also mentions a link between cases of frozen shoulder and smoking.


The condition we’re talking about “freezes” the shoulder joint, making it difficult, if not impossible, to move the shoulder or upper arm. The symptoms of frozen shoulders develop through three stages. According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition begins with the freezing stage. At this phase, which can last anywhere between two to nine months, the symptoms include pain and difficulty in moving the shoulder. The pain might also worsen at night, resulting in sleep disruption.

Next comes the climax or the frozen stage, where the shoulder gets much stiffer. While movement of the shoulder might become more limited, the pain might not be as intense. This second phase lasts from four months to a year. Then comes the last stage, the thawing phase, where the condition improves and both the shoulder and upper arm can be moved more easily. After five months to two years, the shoulder should return to normal. In total, symptoms of a frozen shoulder can last from months to years.


Despite the prolonged symptoms, there is good news: the condition can improve naturally. However, there are definitely treatments and remedies to deal with the pain and, eventually, restore the shoulder’s normal range of motion. Robert H. Schmerling, Senior Faculty Editor of Harvard Health Publishing, mentions a number of treatments for frozen shoulders. The easiest solution, albeit temporary, is anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen.

Applying an ice pack on the shoulder or upper arm several times a day for 10 to 15 minutes can also help. For faster recovery, corticosteroid injections are an effective option. On the flip side, for a more long-term approach, physical therapy can improve the condition by working with a therapist to learn exercises to for the affected area.

Finally, you can prevent frozen shoulders by adjusting your lifestyle. If you tend to live a sedentary lifestyle, try to be more active; at the very least, stretch regularly to move your joints and release tension. If you are a smoker, make a point to stop the habit. With proper treatment and some lifestyle adjustments, frozen shoulders can be relieved or even completely avoided

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