Physical therapy for frozen shoulder

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Overcoming A Frozen Shoulder: What to know about this common diagnosis

Posted By Nick Gornick, PT, DPT

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Typically affecting people between the ages of 40 and 60, "frozen shoulder" is a condition marked by stiffness of the shoulder joint capsule, a bag-like structure that surrounds the ball and socket of the shoulder joint. When the capsule becomes stiff, it severely limits shoulder motion.

Diagnosis with frozen shoulder can be confusing: the good news is that it can be treated, however full recovery can take anywhere from a year to three years.

Three Stages of Frozen Shoulder

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  1. Freezing Phase (1-3 months)
    The shoulder is painful initially and slowly stiffens up. While the pain may slowly get worse before improving, the stiffness continues to worsen.
     
  2. Frozen Phase (3-9 months)
    Now, the shoulder feels very stiff, while pain is minimal. At this point, lifting the arm overhead may not be possible. Daily tasks like putting on a shirt or reaching into kitchen cabinets are very difficult.

  3. Thawing Phase (9-18 months)
    This starts when the shoulder starts to loosen up. The process happens very slowly, but the shoulder eventually increases flexibility and returns to normal.

Prognosis & the Benefits of Physical Therapy

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The good news is frozen shoulder does not last forever; most people will regain all of their shoulder flexibility (a small percentage of people will continue to have mild stiffness in their shoulder for up to four years, though it tends not to limit daily activities).

The role of Physical Therapy

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When have a frozen shoulder, simple things like putting on a shirt, reaching for objects, or driving can become difficult. For those experiencing difficulty with daily tasks, sessions with physical therapists can help improve function.

A physical therapist — using common treatments like hands-on treatment and flexibility and strength-building exercises — also can help improve motion and decrease pain quicker than would happen naturally process.


Nick is a physical therapist specializing in musculoskeletal rehabilitation. He has special interests in treating endurance athletes, post-operative rehab, and individuals with knee, hip, or shoulder pain.

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