Exercise Progression for Frozen Shoulder

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Exercises to Rehab Your Frozen Shoulder

Painful shoulder conditions may need physical therapy to help return to normal.
Physical Therapy can help if you have shoulder pain. Stockbyte/Getty Images

If you have pain in your shoulder and difficulty lifting your arm, you may have frozen shoulder.  Frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis, is a painful condition that seems to come on gradually and limit your ability to lift your shoulder and arm normally.  You may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist if you have a frozen shoulder.

Physical therapy for frozen shoulder typically involves using therapeutic modalities and procedures to decrease your pain, and aggressive range of motion (ROM) exercises to help improve your shoulder's mobility.  Your PT should teach you what to expect from treatment for your frozen shoulder, and he or she should teach you things that you can do to help your condition.

Exercises and movement are essential for the successful treatment of your frozen shoulder.  Your physical therapist will have you perform exercises in the PT clinic, and he or she will likely have you perform specific exercises on your own as part of a home exercise program.

Here is a step-by-step program of exercises to help you get started treating your frozen shoulder.  The program starts with passive motion for your shoulder, and it progresses to more intense rotator cuff strengthening exercises.  Remember to check in with your doctor or physical therapist before this, or any other, treatment program for your condition.

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Passive Shoulder Range of Motion Exercises

Photo of therapist stretching a patient's shoulder.
Your physical therapist can perform passive range of motion for your shoulder. DNY59/Getty Images

Since the hallmark of frozen shoulder is severe loss of shoulder ROM and altered shoulder motion, working on improving your shoulder ROM is of paramount importance.

Passive ROM for your shoulder is a great way to help improve your shoudler mobility.  The only problem with passive ROM: you need another person to help you do the exercises.  This helps to keep your shoulder totally relaxed durning the ROM exercises.

You may use a pulley system to help provide ROM to your shoulder; this is referred to active-assistive shoulder ROM.

Common directions of motion that you should work on during passive ROM include flexion, abduction, external rotation, and internal rotation.

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Shoulder Towel Stretches

Use a towel to bring the arm behind the back to stretch the shoulder.
A towel can be used to stretch the shoulder and rotator cuff tendons. Brett Sears, PT, 2012

You can use a towel to help stretch your shoulder if you have frozen shoulder.  The towel internal rotation stretch, commonly referred to as the "hand behind back" stretch, can help stretch tight rotator cuff muscles and a contracted joint capsule.

The towel chest stretch or pectoralis stretch should be performed to stretch the front of your shoulder.  Be sure to check in with your physical therapist to learn how to safely perform towel stretches for your frozen shoulder.

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Shoulder Active Range of Motion Exercises

Keep your arm straight and lift it up towards the ceiling.
Slowly lift your straight arm up towards the ceiling. Brett Sears, PT, 2011

Once you get your shoulder moving a bit with passive ROM and gentle stretches, it is time to start actively moving your arm.  Active shoulder ROM exercises can help you start using your arm normally, and it can help start getting your shoulder and rotator cuff muscles working again.

Active ROM exercises for your shoulder are simple to do at home, and they can be performed several times a day.  Perform each exercise in flexion, abduction, and external rotation for 10 to 15 repetitions.

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Isometric Shoulder Exercises

Picture of isometric shoulder abduction.
Gently press into a wall to start isometric shoulder abduction. Brett Sears, PT, 2015

As you start improving your shoulder mobility with stretching and ROM exercises, it may be time to start strengthen the muscles around your shoulder.  To begin using your shoulder and rotator cuff muscles, shoulder isometric exercises can be performed.  These exercises are simple to do with no special equipment, and they can help improve the neuromuscular recruitment of your rotator cuff muscles. 

To perform shoulder isometric exercises, simply press into a wall in specific directions.  Hold the pressure for 5 seconds, and then release. You can perform the isometric exercises for 10 to 15 repetitions 2 to 3 times a day.

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Scapular Stabilization Exercises

The prone
Lie face down and slowly raise your arm straight out to the side while pinching your shoulder blade back. Brett Sears, 2011

When you have frozen shoulder, you may start to use strategies to compensate for your lack of motion at your shoulder joint.  One compensatory strategy is to move your shoulder blade excessively when you lift your arm.

Scapular stabilization exercises can help you get control of your shoulder blade so that it moves normally when you lift your arm.  The exercises can be performed on your bed, and they require no special equipment.

To do the exercises, perform the prone row and the prone "I,T,and Y" exercises for 10 to 15 repetitons.  Be sure to check in with your PT to ensure you are doing these properly.

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Rotator Cuff Strengthening with a Resistance Band

Therapy tubing can help you strengthen your rotator cuff muscles.
You can use resistance bands to help improve shoulder abduction strength. Brett Sears, PT, 2012

Frozen shoulder is a condition where things are tight - really tight.  That doesn't mean you should ignore working on improving the strength of your shoulder and rotator cuff muscles.

Improving your rotator cuff strength can help you return to normal activity and mobility if you have a frozen shoulder.  Working your rotator cuff muscles is easy with a resistance band.  Use the band to strengthen your shoulder in flexion, abduction, internal and external rotation, and extension.  Perform each exercise 10 to 15 repetitions, but only do these once a day.  If you don't have a resistance band, you can get one from your local physical therapist.

Frozen shoulder can be a painful condition that prevents you from moving your arm normally.  If you have a frozen shoulder, it is important to use specific exercises and motions to help get your arm and shoulder moving again.  By checking in with your PT and getting to work with this step-by-step program, you may be able to quickly and safely resolve your frozen shoulder.

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