First Steps to Treating Frozen Shoulder

Adhesive Capsulitis? Start Here

What are the first things you should do if you have frozen shoulder?

If you have a frozen shoulder, then you understand how frustrating the pain and limited mobility in your shoulder and arm can be.  It may seem almost impossible to accomplish simple tasks like dressing and bathing.

A frozen shoulder seems to come from nowhere.  Often there is little or no injury, and there are really no specific shoulder tests to determine if you have a frozen shoulder.  The sign of a frozen shoulder is easy to spot: limited, painful range of motion (ROM) in your shoulder.

If you do have a frozen shoulder, a visit to your physical therapist may be beneficial to help you regain normal functional use of your arm.  Your PT can help you manage the pain and provide you with strategies to help you start using your arm normally again.

Here is a list of some simple things you should do if you are suffering from frozen shoulder.  Check in with your doctor before starting any exercise for your shoulder, just to be sure that it is safe for you to proceed.

Stop Wearing a Sling

Photo of a doctor helping a girl in a sling.
Take off that sling if you have frozen shoulder.. Terry Vine/Getty Images

When you have shoulder pain, you may be tempted  to wear a sling to help keep your arm in a pain-free zone.  Wearing a sling with a frozen shoulder is not recommended as this will only serve to continue limiting the ROM in your shoulder joint.

If you are wearing a sling because of shoulder surgery, speak with your doctor before removing it, but in general, a sling should not be worn if you have a frozen shoulder.

Start Using Your Arm

Photo of a baseball pitcher.
If you are a baseball player, you should learn the Thrower's 10 exercises.. Thomas Barwick/ Getty Images

When you have a frozen shoulder, using your arm may cause pain.  Reaching up, out to the side, or behind your back may be difficult and you may want to stop using your arm.

But the pain with a frozen shoulder is usually very temporary.  As soon as you stop using your arm, the pain subsides within minutes.   If you need to, you can help calm the painful symptoms down with an ice pack.

Often with a frozen shoulder there is no danger in using your arm.  In fact, using your arm and shoulder can help get it moving normally again.  Just remember that the pain will last only a few minutes once you rest your arm after use.  Limiting the use of your arm typically leads to worsening of your condition if you have a frozen shoulder.

Start Working on Range of Motion

Shoulder abduction whil lying on your side.
Lie on one side and slowly lift your arm up towards the ceiling.. Brett Sears, 2011

One of the best treatments for your frozen shoulder is working on ROM exercises.  Your physical therapist can prescribe exercises for both passive and active ROM in your shoulder.

Abnormal motion in your shoulder blade usually accompanies a frozen shoulder.  Performing shoulder blade stability exercises as part of your frozen shoulder rehab may help you regain shoulder blade control.

Shoulder pulleys are often used in physical therapy clinics to help improve shoulder ROM.  Pulley exercises can be done in the clinic, but they can also be done if you purchase shoulder pulleys or make your own out of simple items available at your local hardware store.

Work on Rotator Cuff Strengthening

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that surround and support your shoulder joint.  If you have a frozen shoulder, you most likely are not moving your shoulder properly.

Strengthening your rotator cuff muscles can help you improve the way your shoulder moves.  A strong rotator cuff can help support your shoulder and allow it to move properly through its full range of motion.  You should start with simple active range of motion exercises and progress to more advanced rotator cuff strengthening with a resistance band.

Work on Scapular Mobility

 Your shoulder is a complex joint consisting of your shoulder blade, collar bone, and glenohumeral joint.  If you have a frozen shoulder, you may notice that you excessively move your shoulder blade, or scapular, when you try to lift your arm up or out to the side.

One important component of frozen shoulder rehabilitation is normalizing motion in your scapula.  To do this, you can start scapular stabilization exercises.  These exercises are designed to strengthen the muscles that support your scapula and improve they way that your shoulder blade, and entire shoulder joint, moves.

Stop Searching for Magical Cures

 A quick search on the internet promises to reveal many web sites and shoulder specialists who offer a one-stop shop for magical frozen shoulder cures.  Most likely, these sites and specialists are selling what amounts to snake oil treatments for your shoulder.

Most studies indicate that a frozen shoulder can last from a few weeks to almost 2 years.  Even when you have completed physical therapy and have gained normal use of your arm, you may notice a tight feeling in your shoulder when you lift your arm overhead.  This is normal and should clear up in time with continued shoulder ROM exercises.

If you have a frozen shoulder, visit your doctor to make sure you get the appropriate treatment.  A course of physical therapy can certainly help you manage the pain and improve your shoulder mobility so you can return to your normal activities.

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