Frozen shoulder, explained

Frozen Shoulder? Everyone has heard of it – but no one seems to know exactly what it is all about.

So what exactly is frozen shoulder? And why is it such a common and debilitating condition?

What is it?

Frozen shoulder, otherwise known as ‘adhesive capsulitis’ is a relatively complex and somewhat confusing condition. The shoulder capsule and soft tissue (connective tissue) stiffens and thickens, causing severely diminished range of motion and elevated pain levels.

What are the signs and what is the cause?

Frozen shoulder is a gradual process and range of motion will decrease across a period of time for no known reason. The cause of frozen shoulder is still not known but it is thought that a history of shoulder problems potentially can have an impact on developing the condition, as well as diet and lifestyle. There is still no exact known cause of the condition and most cases come on for no obvious reason.

What is the timeline if I develop this condition?

It can range from 5 months through to 3 years, with the average case lasting 18 months from onset of pain to resolution of pain and stiffness.

Who typically gets it?

Middle to older aged women are the largest cohort of the population that experience this condition. It is rare for a person under 40 to develop the condition and it affects about 3% of the population at some point in their lifetime.

How long does it take to get better?

Interestingly, frozen shoulder follows three classic stages:

1. Freezing stage
This stage is often associated with severe decrease in shoulder joint range of motion, with a sharp rise in pain across a 6 week to 9 month period.

2. Frozen stage
The second stage is marked by a severely limited range of motion, however general the pain is not as severe as stage 1. Typically, this stage lasts around 4-9 months.

3. Thawing stage
Lastly, the third stage is linked with a gradual increase in range of motion across time. This last stage often takes the longest and is generally around 5-25 months in length. Quite often full range of motion is not acquired once a person is to have frozen shoulder. This phase is where physiotherapy is able to maximise range of motion and return to full function.

For the best fixes for frozen shoulder, see part 2.

Written by

Tim O’Grady

Tim is a Physiotherapist who specialises in football/Rugby and golfing injuries. Tim doesn’t believe that rest will make you a better athlete and he focuses on performance-based rehab methods. Tim is also qualified in golf biomechanics and injuries.

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