Ask the Expert – What is a Frozen Shoulder?

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I injured my left shoulder six months ago walking my dog. He’s a big beast and while I was chatting with a neighbor he bolted after a squirrel. He lunged so hard I thought my left arm was pulled out of joint. Since then my shoulder has hurt to move and now I can’t reach above my shoulder height. My physiotherapist told me my shoulder is frozen and it could take a long time to heal. What exactly is a frozen shoulder?

–Boatswain Smith

 

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Dear Boatswain Smith,

While dog walking is a great way to get some daily exercise, it obviously has its hazards. Frozen shoulder is a common medical problem that is also referred to as adhesive capsulitis. Frozen shoulders are painful and stiff. Over time people with this condition find their shoulder’s range of motion can decrease so much they can’t do simple things such as comb their hair, do up their bra, or put things in upper cupboards.

Frozen shoulder often occurs as a result of shoulder trauma, but it can also develop spontaneously, especially in diabetics. Regardless of the cause, in this condition the soft tissues surrounding the shoulder joint become inflamed, causing pain. Over time scar tissue is deposited into these tissues making them thicker and stiffer – this causes the loss of range of motion.

Frozen shoulders typically go through three phases: freezing, frozen, and thawing.

The time it takes to go through these phases is highly individual. The bad news is that frozen shoulder typically lasts for one to three years before resolving. The good news is that I have never seen a frozen shoulder patient that did not have their pain resolve and their shoulder range of motion return to normal.

The treatment options for this condition are limited. Physiotherapy exercises to maintain or improve your range of motion are helpful. A corticosteroid injection into the shoulder joint may help to reduce the pain. On rare occasions, people may require shoulder manipulation under anaesthesia. The most important treatment is time – in most cases your body will deal with this problem on its own.

The bottom line is that frozen shoulder is a common medical problem and with time you will eventually be pain free and have full range of motion. Hopefully you will thaw out before your friends nickname you the Frozen Boatswain. Exercise is medicine!

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