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A Frozen Shoulder Is No Picnic – Learn How It's Treated

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You may be reaching for a book or a saucepan when you notice pain in your shoulder. After several days or even weeks of taking it easy your pain hasn’t gotten better and you notice that your range of motion has decreased. You may be experiencing frozen shoulder.

“Frozen shoulder comes on gradually but isn’t something you should ignore,” said Lauren Hansen, MD, from Samaritan Medical Group Orthopedics - Albany. “Getting the right treatment early can significantly shorten how long it lasts.”

Causes of Frozen Shoulder

The exact cause of frozen shoulder is unknown, but Dr. Hansen notes that it occurs most often in people aged 40 to 60, and more often in women than in men. People with diabetes or who have thyroid conditions are at a higher risk for developing frozen shoulder. If you have recently had to immobilize your shoulder for a long period of time, like after surgery or an injury, you may also be at a higher risk.

Symptoms of frozen shoulder include pain and stiffness in the shoulder joint while moving your arm, and a reduced range of motion.

Timeline of Frozen Shoulder

Frozen shoulder will progress and eventually resolve on its own without treatment, but Dr. Hansen warns the process could take up to three years. The condition has three stages:

Freezing stage: The shoulder becomes more painful and range of motion decreases. This can last up to four months.

Frozen stage: Because of the pain, you stop using the shoulder. During this immobilization the shoulder joint stiffens and begins to lose functionality. The lining of the joint thickens and scar tissue forms that keeps it from moving freely. This can last up to a year.

Thawing stage: Pain slowly lessens and you can begin using your shoulder again. Gradually adding movement loosens up the joint and the condition resolves. This can take up to three years.

Treatment Options

Fortunately, these stages can be shortened significantly and you may be able to keep your shoulder from freezing completely if the condition is diagnosed early and you receive proper treatment. You may receive a cortisone shot to help with the pain, and physical therapy can teach you how to keep your joint mobile to avoid stiffening and loss of movement.

“It feels counterintuitive to move a painful joint, but gentle movement is essential to the healing process,” said Dr. Hansen.  

When to Get Help

There can be many causes of shoulder pain, especially as you age and aches and pains become more common. However, most shoulder pain can be diagnosed and treated, so if you’ve been hurting for more than two weeks, go to your primary care provider for an evaluation.

“Frozen shoulder can be very painful so if you suspect you have it, get help early,” said Dr. Hansen.

Read more about shoulder injuries in our health library.

Learn more about orthopedic services at Samaritan.