Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis)

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

  • Medical Editor: Catherine Burt Driver, MD
    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD, is board certified in internal medicine and rheumatology by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Dr. Driver is a member of the American College of Rheumatology. She currently is in active practice in the field of rheumatology in Mission Viejo, Calif., where she is a partner in Mission Internal Medical Group.

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How is a frozen shoulder diagnosed?

A frozen shoulder is suggested during examination when the shoulder range of motion is significantly limited, with either the patient or the examiner attempting the movement. Underlying diseases involving the shoulder can be diagnosed with the history, examination, blood testing, and X-ray examination of the shoulder.

If necessary, the diagnosis can be confirmed when an X-ray contrast dye is injected into the shoulder joint to demonstrate the characteristic shrunken shoulder capsule of a frozen shoulder. This X-ray test is called arthrography. The tissues of the shoulder can also be evaluated with an MRI scan.

What conditions can mimic a frozen shoulder?

Inflammation of the shoulder joint (arthritis) or the muscles around the shoulder and degenerative arthritis of the shoulder joint can cause swelling, pain, or stiffness of the joint that can mimic the range of motion limitation of a frozen shoulder.

Injury to individual tendons around the shoulder (tendons of the rotator cuff) can limit shoulder-joint range of motion but usually not in all directions. Often during the examination of a shoulder with tendon injury (tendinitis or tendon tear), the doctor is able to move the joint with the patient relaxed beyond the range that the patient can on their own.

What is the treatment for a frozen shoulder?

The treatment of a frozen shoulder usually requires an aggressive combination of anti-inflammatory medication, cortisone injection(s) into the shoulder, and physical therapy (physiotherapy). Without aggressive treatment, a frozen shoulder can be permanent.

Diligent physical therapy is often essential for recovery and can include ultrasound, electric stimulation, range-of-motion exercise maneuvers, stretching, ice packs, and eventually strengthening exercises. Physical therapy can take weeks to months for recovery, depending on the severity of the scarring of the tissues around the shoulder.

It is very important for people with a frozen shoulder to avoid reinjuring the shoulder tissues during the rehabilitation period. These individuals should avoid sudden, jerking motions of or heavy lifting with the affected shoulder.

Sometimes a frozen shoulders is resistant to treatment. Patients with resistant frozen shoulders can be considered for release of the scar tissue by arthroscopic surgery or manipulation of the scarred shoulder under anesthesia. This manipulation is performed to physically break up the scar tissue of the joint capsule. It carries the risk of breaking the arm bone (humerus fracture). It is very important for patients that undergo manipulation to partake in an active exercise program for the shoulder after the procedure. It is only with continued exercise of the shoulder that mobility and function is optimized.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/7/2016

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