Frozen shoulder

Frozen shoulder is when tissue and ligaments around your shoulder joint become inflamed, painful and stiff. It's also called adhesive capsulitis.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is frozen shoulder?

A frozen shoulder develops in three stages:

  • Stage 1 – your shoulder becomes inflamed and very painful – these are the first signs of frozen shoulder and some movement may be lost (freezing)
  • Stage 2 – the shoulder pain may ease, but movement becomes increasingly difficult (frozen)
  • Stage 3 – the shoulder pain continues to ease and mobility returns (thaws) - this may take a number of months and, in some cases, several years

Frozen shoulder usually affects one shoulder, but in about one in five people it’s both.

It can sometimes be confused with arthritis but is very different.

How to tell if you have frozen shoulder

Symptoms vary from person to person. You may still have flexibility in your shoulder. However, in some cases, your shoulder may be so stiff that movement is practically impossible.

Symptoms of frozen shoulder include:

  • Limited movement in your shoulder and arm, making it harder to carry out everyday activities
  • Shoulder pain and stiffness that doesn’t go away

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for frozen shoulder

If the pain in your shoulder doesn’t go away, you should see your GP. They may be able to diagnose frozen shoulder from a discussion about your symptoms and a physical examination. This could include trying some simple exercises to show how much movement you still have in your shoulder.

Your GP may also arrange a blood test to check for other conditions. An X-ray, MRI scan or ultrasound scan may also be arranged to rule out arthritis or a tendon injury.

Causes of frozen shoulder

Often it’s not clear exactly what causes frozen shoulder, although it can result from an injury or an operation. However, you’re more likely to be affected if you:

  • Are aged between 40 and 60 with women more likely to be affected than men
  • Have diabetes (more than twice as likely)
  • Have either an overactive or underactive thyroid condition
  • Have had a stroke
  • Have heart disease
  • Have other shoulder problems such as a rotator cuff injury or tendonitis

Common treatments for frozen shoulder

The usual treatment for frozen shoulder is a combination of physiotherapy, including frozen shoulder exercises, and painkillers, such as ibuprofen. Hot or cold packs can also help.

In some cases, your doctor may advise you to have a joint injection with steroids to reduce the inflammation and improve your symptoms.

Not everyone wants treatment for frozen shoulder. You may prefer to wait for it to get better by itself.


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