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What is frozen shoulder?
Frozen shoulder is when your shoulder gets very stiff and painful. It’s caused by a thickening of the area around the shoulder joint, called the shoulder capsule, and the development of bands of thick tissue (adhesions).
The three stages of frozen shoulder:
- Freezing: Lasting 2–9 months, this stage is when you have severe pain and stiffness.
- Frozen: This stage lasts 4–6 months and is when you have extreme stiffness, but your pain gradually lessens.
- Thawing: Your range of motion gradually comes back. Within 6 months to 2 years of thawing, your shoulder should be back to normal.
While frozen shoulder eventually goes away on its own, it can take up to three years from the first symptoms to the end of the thawing stage. But there are things you can do to help relieve pain and maintain mobility.
Do rest your arm as much as possible in the freezing stage
In the freezing stage, your main goal is to not aggravate your shoulder joint. This means keeping your arm as still as possible throughout the day. Once you are in the frozen and thawing stages, your mobility should come back and you can start doing movements again, but doing too much too soon can make things worse.
Don’t do any activity that’s too jarring
As you start to get some range of motion back in the thawing stage, try not to do anything that jerks your shoulder or puts a lot of pressure on it (like pushing, pulling, yanking, or playing contact sports). You’ll want to wait until your shoulder is completely healed and your healthcare provider says those kinds of activities are safe again.
Do ask for help
Because people with frozen shoulder often have limited use of their shoulder in all three stages, you may need some assistance with simple tasks like reaching up to get something or scratching your back. You’ll also want a helping hand for any heavy lifting or activities that require a lot of shoulder motion, like cleaning the house.
Do get physical therapy
Certain exercises can help improve your range of motion, especially in the frozen and thawing phases. Even just a few sessions with a physical therapist can teach you what moves are best and how to have correct form, so that you can do daily exercises at home.
Don’t sleep on your stomach
When sleeping on your stomach, your shoulders end up closer to your chin, which pulls them out of alignment and can aggravate your shoulder. You are also likely to move around more, which can irritate your shoulder. It is better to sleep on your back or on the unaffected side with pillows supporting your neck and arms, which keeps your spine straight and shoulders neutral.
Do apply a heating pad
Warming up your shoulder joint 3–4 times a day can help pain and stiffness in any of the stages. You can use a heating pad, apply a wet towel warmed up in the microwave, or take a 10-minute hot shower. This is especially good to do before doing any exercises because it can loosen up the joint.
Don’t push through the pain
When doing exercises for frozen shoulder, you should stop any movement that starts to cause pain. Being too aggressive with your movements could end up increasing inflammation and making the pain and stiffness worse.
Do be patient
While the vast majority of people with frozen shoulder have a complete recovery, it can take time (up to 3 years for some people). It can be hard to wait that long, but try to stay positive. Once you are at the thawing stage, pain and movement gradually improves week by week.
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