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Frozen shoulder

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

Frozen shoulder is a condition characterized by pain and loss of movement of the shoulder. Otherwise known as adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder is a disorder affecting the lining of the shoulder joint which becomes inflamed and tightens.

What causes a frozen shoulder?

The exact cause is unclear but because it becomes more common as we get older, it’s thought to be due to some form of irritation to the shoulder joint and surrounding capsule of the shoulder. This irritation causes inflammation, which then causes small adhesions or scarring between folds of the shoulder capsule. This is why it’s also sometimes called ‘adhesive capsulitis’.

Who gets frozen shoulder?

Frozen shoulder most commonly affects people aged 40-70 and around one in ten people will develop symptoms in the other shoulder within five to ten years. There are essentially two types of frozen shoulder.

Primary frozen shoulder is where the specific cause of the disorder is not known. Secondary frozen shoulder is where there is a known cause linked to an injury or illness such as diabetes or certain autoimmune conditions.

What are the symptoms of a frozen shoulder?

The two main symptoms are pain and a loss of shoulder movement. The pain is often felt deep in the shoulder or on the outside of the shoulder joint and can be stabbing, aching or burning in nature. It’s often made worse by moving the arm or shoulder and so interferes with normal daily activities as well as sometimes waking you up at night. The loss of movement is typically progressive rather than sudden, and trying to stretch the shoulder out makes the pain worse.

When to see your doctor?

If you develop severe shoulder pain and stiffness following an injury you should seek medical attention promptly. If your shoulder pain and stiffness has come on very quickly or is associated with you feeling unwell, especially with a fever, you should seek urgent medical attention.

What will my doctor do?

The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. They may feel that you will benefit from an X-Ray to assess the shoulder joint for other causes of pain and stiffness. If a diagnosis of frozen shoulder is made, you may be offered tests to identify underlying associated conditions such as diabetes.

Fortunately, many cases of frozen shoulder get better without treatment but this takes many months and there’s little that can speed this healing process up. You may be referred to a physiotherapist, depending upon local services available. If your symptoms fail to improve despite physiotherapy input or are very severe, you may be referred to an orthopedic surgeon. Additional hospital treatments that can be offered for frozen shoulder include injections or, very rarely, surgery to release tight tissue and possible attempts to manipulate the shoulder. Again, it’s important to remember that in most cases an almost complete recovery can be expected without requiring any form of injection or surgery.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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