The shoulder, which is the most flexible joint in the body, is akin to an enginedon’t use it for awhile and chances are it won't start up as quickly and function as smoothly as the last time. Similarly, if you avoid using the shoulder (because of tendinitis or bursitis pain, an injury to your arm, or a general feeling of stiffness and discomfort), you risk developing adhesionsconstricting bands of tissuein the shoulder joint capsule that will severely limit your shoulder's natural range of motion.
As a result, even brushing your hair or putting on a shirt can become a painful, if not impossible, task. This condition is known as adhesive capsulitis, or more familiarly as frozen shoulder.
Since it doesn't get as much use, the shoulder that is opposite the favored handusually the left shoulder in right-handed peopleis the one most often affected.
Symptoms of Frozen Shoulder
- A slow onset of shoulder pain and stiffness. The pain is generally dull but becomes sharp with movement. It may become so severe that it limits your ability to use your shoulder and interferes with sleep.
- Pain is normally located over the outer shoulder area
- Pain in the neck and elbow
- Over time, as shoulder motion becomes limited and the shoulder becomes stiffer, pain diminishes, creating a vicious cycle: shoulder stiffness prevents normal movement, while reduced movement increases stiffness.
What Causes Frozen Shoulder?
Although underuse of the shoulder is the most evident reason for frozen shoulder, researchers are still uncertain about the exact cause. Sometimes trauma to the shoulder may bring about the condition, but many cases occur for no apparent reason.
A minor injury such as bursitis can initially cause frozen shoulder, with the subsequent lack of use causing adhesions to form within 7 to 10 days, making movement increasingly difficult. After three to four weeks of disuse, the adhesions can become so severe that movement is seriously restricted in the shoulder joint, making a simple motion, such as raising your arm, extremely painful.
What If You Do Nothing?
The longer you continue to neglect a frozen shoulder, the greater the possibility of developing a permanent shoulder disability. Prompt action is recommended to restore a normal range of motion to the shoulder.
Home Remedies for Frozen Shoulder
If you develop shoulder pain, start the following measures right away to prevent adhesions from forming. For any persistent pain, however, you should get medical advice.
- Try heat or cold. Depending on which works best for you for pain relief, try a hot compress or heating pad for 15 minutes several times daily, or else apply an ice pack to the shoulder for 15 minutes, several times daily.
- Take anti-inflammatory medication. For minor pain, take aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen according to label directions.
- Support the shoulder. Using a sling may help ease your discomfort.
Frozen Shoulder Prevention
- Stretch and strengthen. Performing an exercise routine that helps maintain overall shoulder strength and flexibility will help prevent frozen shoulder. The exercises for rotator cuff tendinitis can help get you started (though you should discuss them with your doctor first).
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if you have symptoms of a frozen shoulder or if you have persistent shoulder pain or stiffness that won't clear up.
What Your Doctor Will Do
After taking a medical history, your doctor will examine your shoulder for range of motion, stiffness, and pain. You may also be asked to undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan), a diagnostic test that provides a far more detailed picture of the shoulder than a conventional x-ray.
Depending on the severity of the case, your physician may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications or inject cortisone into the joint to reduce inflammation and pain. He or she may also recommend therapy and exercises. In more advanced cases your physician may recommend a procedure to manipulate the shoulder under general anesthesia and break up the adhesions.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media