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General Information

DEFINITION--Pain and stiffness in the shoulder joint that progresses to inability to use the shoulder. In this case, "frozen" does not relate to freezing temperatures.

BODY PARTS INVOLVED--Shoulder tendons, bursa, joint capsule, muscles, blood vessels and nerves.

SEX OR AGE MOST AFFECTED--All ages, but most common in athletic adolescents and young adults.


Early stages:

  • Pain in the shoulder, often slight, that progresses to severe pain that interferes with sleep and normal activities. Pain worsens with shoulder movement.
  • Stiffness in the shoulder that prevents normal movement. Reduced movement increases stiffness.

Later stages:

  • Pain in the arm or neck.
  • Inability to move the shoulder.
  • Intolerable shoulder pain.

CAUSES--Minor shoulder injury or inflammation, such as bursitis or tendinitis, that worsens from lack of use. Adhesions (constricting bands of tissue) form with disuse in 7 to 10 days. Adhesions increase disuse. After 3 weeks of disuse, adhesions grow so severe that the joint cannot move.


  • Neglect of minor injuries, including bursitis or tendinitis.
  • Poor physical conditioning and occasional athletic activity.
  • Diabetes mellitus.
  • Peripheral vascular disease.
  • Immobilization.
  • Sedentary workers.


  • Obtain medical treatment for bursitis and tendinitis, including exercises to prevent formation of adhesions.
  • Do regular stretching exercises.

What To Expect


  • Your own observation of symptoms.
  • Medical history and physical exam by a doctor.
  • X-rays of the shoulder (arthrography) or MRI (See Glossary) of the shoulder.


  • Self-care after diagnosis.
  • Doctor's treatment, including manipulation of the shoulder to break up adhesions. This is done in a hospital or outpatient surgical facility under general anesthesia.
  • Physical therapy and exercises.
  • Surgery may be necessary in severe cases to remove adhesions or repair the capsule.


  • Permanent shoulder disability and pain without treatment or with delayed treatment.
  • Tearing of the shoulder capsule due to weakness and scar tissue.

PROBABLE OUTCOME--Usually curable with treatment and rehabilitation (but may take several months). Some heal spontaneously.

How To Treat


  • Wearing a sling may help ease discomfort.
  • Application of heat (warm compresses or heating pad) to the affected area helps relieve pain. For some patients, ice may be more helpful.


  • Your doctor may prescribe: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Injections of cortisone and local anesthesia into joints to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • For minor pain, you may use non-prescription drugs such as aspirin.


  • Physical therapy and passive shoulder exercises.
  • Resume your normal activities as soon as symptoms improve.

DIET--No special diet. Vitamins and mineral supplements don't help unless you can't eat a normal, well-balanced diet.

Call Your Doctor If

  • You have symptoms of a frozen shoulder.
  • You have persistent shoulder pain, indicating possible bursitis or tendinitis.
  • New, unexplained symptoms develop. Drugs used in treatment may produce side effects.
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