Frozen Shoulder

The aim of this information sheet is to give you some understanding of the problem you may have with your shoulder. It has been divided into sections, describing your shoulder, what we know about frozen shoulder and your treatment options.

About your shoulder
The shoulder is designed to have a large amount of movement so that we can use our hands/arms in a wide variety of positions. Some movement occurs between the shoulder blade and chest wall. However most shoulder movements are at the ball and socket joint. The ball at the top of the arm bone (‘humerus’) fits into the shallow socket (‘glenoid’) which is part of your shoulder blade (‘scapula’). There is a loose bag or capsule which surrounds the joint. This is supported by ligaments and muscles.

What is ‘frozen shoulder’?
Typically the joint is stiff and initially painful, often starting without an apparent cause.  The loose bag (capsule) around the shoulder joint becomes inflamed. The bag then appears to tighten or shrink. This tightening combined with the pain restricts the movement.

How common is it?
It is most common in people between the ages of 40 and 70 years and has been estimated to affect at least one person in 50 every year. A staggering one million people in the UK will have frozen shoulder in a year. About 10% of people may develop frozen shoulder in the other shoulder within 5–7 years of the first one. However it tends to resolve more quickly than the first. Although it is widespread, it is a difficult condition to treat. We hope that this information sheet will help to explain what we know about it so far.

Why does it occur?
A primary frozen shoulder is when the exact cause is not known. It is more common in people with diabetes and with a thyroid gland problem. About 15% of patients link it to a minor injury to the shoulder.

A secondary frozen shoulder can develop if the shoulder area is kept still for some time, for example, after a stroke or heart attack. It can also occur after major injury or surgery to the shoulder.

Some experts think the inflammation starts with a problem in the shoulder itself, others feel it is related to factors away from the shoulder (e.g. stiff neck, certain diseases). Research is continuing to try and answer some of these questions.

What tests may be done?
The main way we diagnose the problem with your shoulder is from what you tell us and from our examination. Sometimes an X ray will be done to check there are no bone changes in your shoulder joint.

What is likely to happen?
There are 3 main phases

1) Painful phase (which can last from 2 to 9 months)

The pain often starts gradually and builds up. It may be felt on the outside of the upper arm and can extend down to the elbow and even into the forearm. It can be present at rest and is worse on movements of the arm.

Sleep is often affected, as lying on it is painful or impossible. During this time movements of the shoulder begin to be reduced.

2) Stiff phase (which can last from 4 to 12 months)

The ball and socket joint becomes increasingly stiff, particularly on twisting movements such as trying to put your hand behind your back or head. These movements remain tight even when you try to move the shoulder with your other hand or someone tries to move the shoulder for you.

It is the ball and socket joint which is stiff. The shoulder blade is still free to move around the chest wall, and you may become more aware of this movement.

3) Recovery phase (which can last from 5 to 26 months)

The pain and stiffness starts to resolve during this phase, and you can begin to use your arm in a more normal way.

The total duration of the process is from 12 to 42 months, on average lasting 30 months.

It is important to realise that although the pain and stiffness can be very severe, usually the problem does resolve. It will not bother you for ever!

A review of people who had frozen shoulder approximately 7 years earlier shows that only 11% still had mild interference with everyday activities.  However, 60% continued to have some stiffness in the shoulder joint when it was measured. So ultimately, it should have little effect on your daily life, although the joint may remain stiffer when tested.

What are your treatment options?
During the painful phase the emphasis is on pain-relief. Therefore painkilling tablets and anti-inflammatory tablets may be prescribed.

You can also try using heat, such as a hot water bottle, or cold (ice packs).

Injections into the joint may also be offered if the pain continues.

Physiotherapy at this stage is directed at pain- relief (heat, cold and other pain relieving modalities such as electrotherapy). Forcing the joint to move can make it more painful and is best not pursued. You can try using a TENS machine (transcutaneous nerve stimulation) which some people find helpful or try alternative therapies such as acupuncture.

Once stiffness is more of a problem than pain, physiotherapy is indicated.

You will be shown specific exercises to try and get the ball and socket moving. In addition, the therapist may move the joint for you, trying to regain the normal glides and rolling of the joint. These are known as joint mobilisations. Muscle based movement techniques may also be used.

If movement is not changing with these measures, physiotherapy will be discontinued, although it is appropriate to continue with the suggested exercises to try and maintain the movement that you have.

Hopefully, as the recovery phase starts you will find that the movement gradually increases. This, again, can be a useful time to have physiotherapy to help maximise the movement.

If you have significant pain and stiffness the doctors may offer you a ‘Manipulation under Anaesthetic ’(MUA) plus arthroscopy operation. There is a separate information leaflet on this. It involves a distension procedure which tries to stretch the loose bag (which is now tight) around the shoulder joint. The tight capsule may be released or removed. In addition the joint is stretched in certain directions to try and free the joint up.

This operation is not done routinely for frozen shoulder, only for those which are very slow to resolve.

Patient Information Leaflets Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre NHS Trust