What is frozen shoulder?

The pain and stiffness in your shoulder doesn’t necessarily mean you need surgery. If you’re experiencing the symptoms associated with frozen shoulder, physical therapy might be the solution to all of your problems.

Physical therapist stretching arm of older woman for frozen shoulder blog

What is Frozen Shoulder?

There’s no mistaking the pain and limited range of motion associated with frozen shoulder. This shoulder complaint affects approximately 3% of adults, usually between 40 and 65 years of age, and it’s more common in women.

Frozen shoulder is often confused with arthritis, but it isn’t the same condition. So, what is frozen shoulder?

The anatomy of your shoulder

Three bones form the ball-and-socket joint of your shoulder. Your collarbone connects your breastbone to your shoulder. The ball of your upper arm bone sits in the socket of your shoulder blade, and the connective tissues of your shoulder capsule hold it in place. Tendons and muscles surround this strong, capsular ligament.

Synovial fluid lubricates your shoulder joint to increase its movement. This thick liquid is produced in your joints. When less fluid is present, inflammation can occur.

The stages of frozen shoulder

Frozen shoulder, also called adhesive capsulitis, is marked by stiffness, possibly due to scar tissue development in the joint. There may also be reduced synovial fluid in the shoulder joint. Without adequate synovial fluid, the shoulder capsule grows thicker and becomes inflamed.

Frozen shoulder occurs in three stages: freezing, frozen, and thawing.


The first stage of frozen shoulder lasts anywhere from six weeks to nine months. During this stage, your pain gradually increases, and you lose range of motion.


In the second stage, you might experience mild relief from your pain, but stiffness continues, and daily activities can be difficult.


The final stage of frozen shoulder can last from six months to several years. In this stage, your range of motion finally returns, as does your strength.

The pain associated with frozen shoulder is often located in the outer shoulder area, but it can affect your upper arm as well. Your pain is usually worse in the early stages of the condition, and moving your affected arm can worsen your symptoms.

Factors that lead to frozen shoulder

While there’s no apparent cause for frozen shoulder, several factors can increase your risks of it developing. For example, people with diabetes have higher rates of frozen shoulder with more pronounced stiffness lasting for longer periods of time.

Additional factors that can increase your risk of frozen shoulder include:

  • Medical conditions like thyroid disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and heart disease
  • Injuries that limit mobility, like a broken arm or rotator cuff injury
  • Recovering from a stroke
  • Recovering from heart surgery or a mastectomy

To diagnose frozen shoulder, your doctor evaluates your symptoms, tests your range of motion, and conducts digital imaging tests like X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasounds to rule out other conditions like arthritis or injury.

Treating frozen shoulder

Frozen shoulder usually improves on its own, but it can take up to three years. Our orthopedic surgeons at Austin Shoulder Institute can prescribe customized physical therapy to ease your frozen shoulder symptoms, restore your range of motion, and speed your recovery.

Nonsurgical treatments for frozen shoulder typically include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce pain and swelling
  • Cortisone steroid injections to reduce inflammation in your shoulder joint
  • Hydrodilatation fluid injections to stretch the shoulder capsule
  • Physical therapy to loosen your shoulder and restore range of motion

When frozen shoulder symptoms don’t improve, your doctor might recommend surgical treatment. These procedures involve surgically releasing the shoulder capsule to increase your range of motion.

If you need treatment for frozen shoulder, call our office in North Austin, Texas, or click here on the website to schedule your appointment.


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