Having Trouble Lifting Your Arms Over Your Head? It Could Be Frozen Shoulder

woman holding her shoulder

Imagine your shoulder feeling like it’s fixed in place. That immovable sensation is one of the symptoms often reported by the 4% of Americans battling frozen shoulders, a condition that causes severe shoulder pain, stiffness, and disability.

We use our shoulders in so many different ways every day, so when this critical joint stops working as it should, it’s a noticeable disruption. Even tackling small tasks, like fastening a bra strap or adjusting the angle of a showerhead, can become non-starters. 

When shoulder pain keeps you from doing what you want, it’s time to seek treatment and start healing with help from a specialist. Read on to learn what causes frozen shoulders and potential treatments to help you get the relief you need to carry on.

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What Is a Frozen Shoulder?

Frozen shoulder, also called adhesive capsulitis, causes pain and stiffness in the shoulder. It is caused by progressive stiffening and thickening of the shoulder joint lining or capsule. Over time, the shoulder becomes very hard to move, and pain is usually made worse by raising your arm over your head or behind your back.

Three Stages of Frozen Shoulder

The three stages of frozen shoulder—freezing, frozen, and thawing—are associated with different symptoms. Each step of the process can last several months. 

Stage 1: Freezing

In the freezing stage, you feel increasing pain over time. As the pain worsens, you begin to lose the range of motion in your shoulder. The freezing stage can last anywhere from six weeks to nine months.

Stage 2: Frozen

In the frozen stage, some of your pain may improve, but the stiffness will remain. This frozen shoulder stage can last four to six months and make daily activities very difficult.

Stage 3: Thawing

In this final stage, your frozen shoulder slowly improves. In about six months to two years, your strength and range of motion usually return to normal.

With no quick fixes available, the entire healing process for a frozen shoulder takes some time, but working with a trained occupational therapist may speed up improvements in your shoulder function and mobility. 

What Causes Frozen Shoulder?

While the direct causes of frozen shoulder are not fully understood, some factors put you at greater risk of developing it:

  • Diabetes. Frozen shoulder occurs much more often in people with diabetes, and diabetic patients tend to have more stiffness for longer.
  • Other diseases. Other conditions associated with greater risk for frozen shoulder include hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Parkinson’s disease, and cardiac disease.
  • Immobilization. You can develop a frozen shoulder after your shoulder has been immobilized. To prevent stiffness, it’s so important to move your shoulder right away after injury or surgery.

How Is Frozen Shoulder Treated?

If you think you may be suffering from a frozen shoulder, your physician may want to take x-rays or an MRI to look for spurs, arthritis, or a tear in the rotator cuff tendons.

Most people respond well to nonsurgical treatments, including rest and avoiding certain activities.

Other treatments may include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines. Using drugs, like aspirin and ibuprofen, can reduce pain and swelling.
  • Steroid injections. Cortisone (an anti-inflammatory medication) can be injected directly into the shoulder joint.
  • Therapy. A skilled therapist can recommend specific exercises that will help restore motion. 

If nonsurgical treatments don’t seem to relieve frozen shoulder symptoms, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Surgery for Frozen Shoulder

Shoulder specialists perform frozen shoulder surgery on patients under general anesthesia with an anesthetic block to numb their arms.

A camera is inserted into the shoulder through a small incision, and the tight tissue blocking shoulder motion is released. Then the shoulder is gently manipulated to stretch out the remaining tight tissues and allow for full movement.


Your recovery can take anywhere from three to six months. It involves physical therapy to maintain and improve your range of motion. 

After frozen shoulder surgery, outcomes are generally good, with most patients having reduced—or eliminated—pain and improved mobility. However, complete range of motion may never fully return in other cases, and some stiffness can linger for several years even after surgery, especially for patients with diabetes.

Trust IHTSC’s Experienced Shoulder Pain Doctors

Let us take a weight off your shoulders. 

Our physicians and staff are trained and experienced in the most advanced surgical and nonsurgical care for your shoulder injuries and disorders. 

Request an appointment with a shoulder specialist today

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