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Ask the Doc: Without any apparent injury, my shoulder has become stiff and painful. What can I do about ?

Information provided on the blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or offer treatment plans.

Have you ever reached over your head to take down a glass for a drink or tried to put on your coat but you felt like your shoulder/arm just wouldn’t reach where you wanted it to reach? So you compensated somehow by leaning to get your arm higher, or perhaps you twisted a certain way. Do you have a dull or achy pain associated with this stiffness?

You may be experiencing a common condition called “Frozen Shoulder” or “Adhesive Capsulitis,” an enigmatic problem that causes pain and reduced range of motion.

Frozen shoulder affects 2-5% of the population–most often middle–aged women– without any known cause. Sometimes, however, it is associated with a specific illness or event. Diabetes, for example, increases the likelihood that you will develop this problem. Someone who has had breast or heart surgery may suddenly realize that his or her shoulder does not move well.

Whenever surgery is part of the mix, there are risks which we as surgeons work diligently to minimize. But in spite of all we do to prevent problems, the ligaments that hold the arm bone to the shoulder socket can become thickened and stop stretching as they should. This means that you can move your arm bone just so far before there is an impasse–it just won’t move any further.

One frustrating component of frozen shoulder for patients is that X-rays and blood tests are usually normal with this condition, and the best way to identify it is through a physical examination.

Early in the course of this condition, it’s often wise to rest and to do simple exercises such as swinging your arm back and forth like a pendulum and using your fingers to help you walk your arm up a wall.

Physical therapy and cortisone injections can also be helpful. If all else fails–an orthopedic surgeon may manipulate and stretch the joint while the patient is under anesthesia to help to loosen the joint, or utilize an arthroscopic procedure to loosen the tight ligaments.

While your prognosis is excellent, it usually takes several months to recover completely, so be patient, don’t push yourself too hard, and pay attention to what your body is telling you.

A minority of patients ultimately will lose a little motion, which generally does not interfere with normal daily activities.

If you’re dealing with frozen shoulder, make sure you get it checked out because there are conservative treatment options available to you.

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Steve Rochell, MD

Dr. Rochell is an orthopedic surgeon with 28 years of experience. Prior to his medical career, he was an Illinois state champion gymnast, winning the still ring competition in both 1966 and 1967. He continued gymnastics through his college career at Stanford, becoming an All-American.


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