Your shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint made up of three bones: your upper arm bone (humerus), your shoulder blade (scapula), and your collarbone (clavicle).
The head of the upper arm bone fits into a shallow socket in your shoulder blade. Strong connective tissue, called the shoulder capsule, surrounds the joint.
To help your shoulder move more easily, synovial fluid lubricates the shoulder capsule and the joint.
In frozen shoulder, the shoulder capsule thickens and becomes stiff and tight. Thick bands of tissue — called adhesions — develop. In many cases, there is less synovial fluid in the joint.
The hallmark signs of this condition are severe pain and being unable to move your shoulder — either on your own or with the help of someone else. It develops in three stages:
Stage 1: Freezing
In the “freezing” stage, you slowly have more and more pain. As the pain worsens, your shoulder loses range of motion. Freezing typically lasts from 6 weeks to 9 months.
Stage 2: Frozen
Painful symptoms may actually improve during this stage, but the stiffness remains. During the 4 to 6 months of the “frozen” stage, daily activities may be very difficult.
Stage 3: Thawing
Shoulder motion slowly improves during the “thawing” stage. Complete return to normal or close to normal strength and motion typically takes from 6 months to 2 years.
The causes of frozen shoulder are not fully understood. There is no clear connection to arm dominance or occupation. A few factors may put you more at risk for developing frozen shoulder.
Diabetes. Frozen shoulder occurs much more often in people with diabetes. The reason for this is not known. In addition, diabetic patients with frozen shoulder tend to have a greater degree of stiffness that continues for a longer time before “thawing.”
Other diseases. Some additional medical problems associated with frozen shoulder include hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Parkinson’s disease, and cardiac disease.
Immobilization. Frozen shoulder can develop after a shoulder has been immobilized for a period of time due to surgery, a fracture, or other injury. Having patients move their shoulders soon after injury or surgery is one measure prescribed to prevent frozen shoulder.
Pain from frozen shoulder is usually dull or aching. It is typically worse early in the course of the disease and when you move your arm. The pain is usually located over the outer shoulder area and sometimes the upper arm.
After discussing your symptoms and medical history, your doctor will examine your shoulder.
Your doctor will move your shoulder carefully in all directions to see if movement is limited and if pain occurs with the motion. The range of motion when someone else moves your shoulder is called “passive range of motion.” Your doctor will compare this to the range of motion you display when you move your shoulder on your own (“active range of motion”). People with frozen shoulder have limited range of motion both actively and passively.
Other tests that may help your doctor rule out other causes of stiffness and pain include:
X-rays. Dense structures, such as bone, show up clearly on x-rays. X-rays may show other problems in your shoulder, such as arthritis.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound. These studies can create better images of soft tissues. They are not required to diagnose frozen shoulder, however, they may help to identify other problems in your shoulder, such as a torn rotator cuff.
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