Frozen shoulder is a syndrome characterized by painful loss of movement of the shoulder joint. In this case, the word “frozen” is analogous to “stiff”. “Adhesive capsulitis” is a medical term for this syndrome. The capsule surrounding the shoulder joint becomes thickened and contracted. A decrease in the amount of synovial fluid inside the capsule (fluid that supplies nutrition and lubricates the joint) decreases. The result is restriction of movement of the shoulder accompanied by pain. This restriction affects only certain movements of the shoulder, thus presenting a specific pattern.
Why the syndrome occurs is a bit of a mystery. It is more common in people between the ages of forty and sixty years and is often associated with a tendonitis or bursitis. It can occur in athletes following trauma if the shoulder is immobilized for an excessive period of time, but this seldom happens. Many people acquire the syndrome without any specific injury at all. It may develop in people following a virus and can even affect both shoulders of an individual consecutively over a period of years.
Pain, stiffness and recovery are the three phases of the frozen shoulder syndrome, which together can last for up to two years. Ins some cases it is possible that early intervention in the syndrome can help prevent the progression to a fully developed frozen shoulder and its lengthy involvement. Maintaining available range of motion is important but this must be done respecting pain limitations. Ignoring the problem and compensating on a long term basis with the other arm is likely to contribute to further progression of this syndrome.
Warning signs to watch for are a progressive restriction of shoulder movement accompanied by varying degrees of pain. Other significant findings include waking up at night, being unable to lie on the given shoulder and pain radiating to the elbow or hand.
Seeing your family physician early on is important to rule out other pathologies and may help prevent the syndrome from becoming prolonged. Medication can be indicated in some cases. Physical therapy can play a very important role in educating one on exercises appropriate for each stage of this syndrome in order to optimize healing time and pain management. This is usually done in “bouts” with long term monitoring of the condition. Frozen shoulders, as mysteriously as they come on, can self-resolve almost spontaneously after two years time. However, proper management and education can certainly optimize your function and productivity during the prolonged course of the syndrome.