Early symptoms of frozen shoulder

The early symptoms of frozen shoulder – also known as adhesive capsulitis – are characterized by stiffness, pain, loss of motion, and inflammation in the shoulder joint. The signs and symptoms – which more often than not affect only one shoulder – start gradually, become worse over time, and finally resolve within 1-3 years. Moreover, the symptoms develop in three different stages, each of which can have a duration of several months.

Frozen shoulder symptoms

Freezing stage

·         Any movement of the shoulder causes pain.

·         The range-of-motion of the shoulder starts to become limited.

Frozen stage

·         Pain may start to diminish.

·         The shoulder becomes stiffer.

·         Using the shoulder becomes more difficult.

Thawing stage

·         Range-of-motion starts to improve.


Frozen shoulder takes place when the capsule that contains the bones, ligaments, and tendons in the shoulder joint inflames and stiffens, thickening and tightening around the joint and restricting the movement of the bones. What causes this is not known, but women and people older than 40 years of age are at an increased risk. Other risk factors have been identified, including the following:

·         Rotator cuff injury.

·         Broken arm.

·         Cervical disk disease of the neck.

·         Stroke.

·         Recovery from surgery.

·         Diabetes.

·         Hyperthyroidism.

·         Hypothyroidism.

·         Cardiovascular disease.

·         Open heart surgery.

·         Tuberculosis.

·         Parkinson’s disease.

In lieu of a known cause, adhesive capsulitis starts with the early symptoms of frozen shoulder – pain and stiffness that limits or prevents movement of the arm. For example, a patient may not be able to reach over his or her head. Doctors often diagnose frozen shoulder when the patient is not able to rotate his/her shoulder. The physician will perform a physical exam during which the patient may asked to move in certain ways to assess active range-of-motion. Conversely, the doctor may move the arm him/herself to check passive range-of-motion. X-rays and MRI may be used to discard other conditions; i.e., arthritis.  Frozen shoulder usually improves in a couple of years, even without treatment – but complications are still possible, such as stiffness and pain that continue after therapy, and breaking an arm if forcefully moved during surgery.

Treatment for frozen shoulder


·         Over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (painkillers) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen.

·         Corticosteroid injections.


·         Physical therapy.

·         Exercise.


·         Joint distension.

·         Shoulder manipulation.

·         Shoulder arthroscopy.


·         Hot or cold compression packs.

·         Electrotherapy with TENS units.

·         Acupuncture.


Physical therapy and painkillers can restore  motion within a year, after which physical therapy must continue for weeks or months to prevent a relapse.

Related: How to use a TENS unit for shoulder pain?