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The Ultimate Cold Shoulder: frozen shoulder syndrome

It’s summertime so “frozen” anything may sound like a great idea. What if the frozen thing is a body part? Maybe your shoulder?


Frozen shoulder syndrome -- officially known as adhesive capsulitis -- means that you can’t move (or mostly can’t move) your shoulder. But why? I’ll get a little anatomy geeky here for a minute to explain.

The Holy Grail of human joints is to maximize both stability and flexibility. You can’t have 100% of both so there are trade-offs in every joint. Both your hip and your shoulder are ball-and-socket joints. But in the shoulder, where you’ve got great flexibility and rotation, you sacrifice stability. Where you’ve got great stability – your hip – you sacrifice flexibility and rotation. Your leg doesn’t rotate nearly as far as your arm does and it’s much easier to dislocate your shoulder than your hip.

Joint function is a trade-off.

The whole shoulder complex – arm bone, collar bone, and shoulder blade - are held together in a capsule of fibers to increase stability. This happy little capsule can get all hot and bothered with inflammation (from injury, illness, irritated trigger points, etc.) and stiffen up. Then special bands of very tight fibers – called adhesions – develop to really hold things in place.

Why do some shoulders freeze? That’s still mostly a mystery. But here are a few things we know about what happens when the shoulder freezes:

  • The wrist and elbow still bend, but the shoulder joint has little-to-no movement in it.

  • Moving the arm – with or without assistance – produces a dull, aching pain.

  • Despite the name, the shoulder and arm aren’t cold to the touch.

  • It usually only happens to one shoulder at a time.

  • People who have one shoulder “freeze” are highly likely to have the other shoulder “freeze” in the future.

  • It happens in three stages: freezing, frozen, and thawing.

The somewhat good news: It clears up on its own over time. Unfortunately, “time” in this case can be months or years. Anywhere from 12 months – 3 years on average.

The actual good news: manual therapies (like physical therapy and massage therapy) can speed up that time-line for “thawing”. Even better? At Freed Bodyworks we’ve got multiple therapists skilled with frozen shoulder.

Treating frozen shoulder requires us to call on all of our training switching between a variety of techniques to deal with where your shoulder is on any given day. Someone with frozen shoulder is also often working with a physical therapist and we’ll work in conjunction with what they’re doing.

Some of the pain associated with this condition is because you have to compensate for your frozen shoulder. You may have noticed that shoulders are critical to functioning in your day-to-day life! Consequently, when you have frozen shoulder you over-use your neck and back, leaving them sore and tight. A skilled massage therapist can assess these compensation patterns and help considerably in that department.

Keep in mind, this is not a situation where you can leave it all in the hands of the professionals, though. If you genuinely want speedy progress, you have to do all those in-home exercises and modifications to everyday behavior we (and your physical therapist) will suggest.

Really, you have to.

But we’ll be here to help you every step of the way.

A side note: we can not diagnose anything, not even frozen shoulder. A number of conditions present with similar symptoms and how we address each one is different. If you suspect frozen shoulder, it would be wise to get a formal diagnosis from a medical professional.

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