What is Frozen Shoulder? What You Need to Know About Adhesive Capsulitis

The term “frozen shoulder” can be a confusing one. Sometimes people who experience a bit of stiffness will describe their shoulder as “frozen.” But true frozen shoulder, known formally as adhesive capsulitis, presents itself with distinctive signs and symptoms. Without treatment, this debilitating condition can drag on for several years.

The Three Main Stages of Adhesive Capsulitis

A true frozen shoulder condition is characterized by three stages, each with distinctive signs and symptoms. How long each stage last varies with the patient, but there is an average range for each phase of frozen shoulder. Typically, patients who seek treatment are able to shorten each stage and hasten recovery. In general, the three main stages are:

Freezing

For many patients, this is the most difficult stage of adhesive capsulitis. The freezing stage involves both pain and limited mobility. Seemingly out of nowhere, certain movements begin to cause intense pain. Even getting jostled in a crowd, or turning over in your sleep, can send intense pain flooding to your shoulder area.

While the area hasn’t yet reached the literal immobile or frozen stage, patients understandably begin to limit their motions in order to avoid the pain. Many also have disrupted sleep patterns because of waking from extreme discomfort.

Typically, the freezing stage lasts several months, with a range of six weeks to nine months, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Frozen

The good news about this second stage of adhesive capsulitis is that it is largely absent of pain. The bad news is that the stiffness will become absolute. This can make everyday tasks almost impossible without radical adjustments in how you go about undertaking them.

The range for the frozen stage can last anywhere from eight weeks to six months.

Thawing

The thawing stage is the period during which patients are recovering. Range of motion will gradually increase. Fortunately, it’s rare to have much pain even once the shoulder “unfreezes.” Even without treatment, full or nearly-complete recovery of painless shoulder function happens once the thawing stage is complete.

Like the other two stages, the thawing period happens over the course of several months. It’s often the longest one, ranging from six months to 2 years.

Treatment Options

Simple range-of-motion exercises have been found to be extremely effective for patients suffering during various stages of physical therapy. The more you do them, both in physical therapy session and at home, the more quickly your shoulder is likely to “thaw.”

Some patients may need prescription medication during the “freezing” stage to cope with intense pain. Otherwise, OTC ibuprofen can often help. If physical therapy and the passage of time don’t find patients recovered after two years or so, surgery or stem cell therapy may be an option.  

It’s not always clear what causes frozen shoulder. Risk factors include being over 40, having a previous shoulder injury, and having primary conditions such as diabetes. Whatever the underlying cause, it may be comforting to know that most patients eventually recover from frozen shoulder even without treatment. But why prolong the pain and loss of function? BackFit can provide an assessment of your condition, and help get you started on a course of physical therapy that can speed your recovery.

Pain Management, Physical Therapy, Regenerative Medicine

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