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Frozen Shoulder Exercises and Natural Treatment

Pain, stiffness, and trouble moving your shoulder are all signs of a condition called frozen shoulder. Learn about the signs, treatment, and exercises.

By 1MD Nutrition Editorial Staff

9 minute read

Last Updated March 1, 2022

Understand Frozen Shoulder: Causes, Treatment, & Exercises

The occasional pulled shoulder muscle is not something to fret over, but ongoing stiffness and pain lasting for weeks at a time could be indicative of a frozen shoulder. This is nothing like the cold shoulder you give to people you don’t like; this is a real physical ailment that can disrupt your life.

What Is Frozen Shoulder?

This may sound like a trending phrase, but the reality is that between 2% and 5% of people suffer from this condition at any given time. The general cause is inflammation, which floods the area after immobility or incorrect stretching and flexing. People often develop frozen shoulders after injury to the area or after prolonged time wearing a sling or cast.


Sedentary lifestyles cause people to move less, and the limited range of motions to your arms, chest, and shoulders contributes to the development of frozen shoulder. Also, elderly individuals with medical conditions associated with inflammation are more prone to developing this painful condition.

Frozen shoulder often develops gradually, and you will notice persistent pain in the joints or muscles along with stiffness for extended periods of time. If left untreated, it is possible for frozen shoulder to last for a year, which can be very disruptive. Exercise becomes a challenge, routine daily activities become a chore, and sleeping is negatively impacted.

The longer the pain lasts, the more your mobility is affected, and the worse the shoulder pain becomes. Early identification and treatment are the best way to control symptoms and ease pain so you can get back to your normal life.

The Symptoms to Watch For

Typically, frozen shoulder develops gradually, and the symptoms will worsen over time. The symptoms will vary depending on the stage, but in general, you should keep watch for the following:

1. Stiffness in and around the shoulder, usually in one shoulder at a time. It is likely that the pain will return to the same shoulder. Once frozen shoulder develops in one arm, there is a 20% to 30% chance it will develop in the other arm.

2. Muscle, joint, and bone pain in and around the shoulder or arms.

3. Limited range of motion.

4. Difficulty moving and using arms normally, such as reaching, getting dressed, driving, holding objects, or carrying things.

5. Difficulty sleeping comfortably.

Doctors estimate that there are four stages to the progression of the condition, with each one lasting anywhere between one and three months; the “pre-freezing” stage, the “freezing” stage, the “frozen” stage, and finally, the “thawing” stage.

♦ The freezing stage is characterized by limited shoulder movement and noticeable pain around the area. Pain can begin to decrease in the freezing stage, but stiffness will definitely set in, making movements difficult. 

♦ The frozen stage is marked by a very stiff shoulder that is not painful when resting. The shoulder capsule will be thicker and scarred, limiting your range of motion and causing severe pain when stretching or reaching.

♦ During the thawing stage, your range of motion may improve, but you can still expect the pain to come and go, particularly at night or anytime pressure is applied to the socket area.

What Causes Frozen Shoulder?

Essentially a lack of movement and flexibility are the culprits, but inflammation contributes, as well. The shoulder capsule is the section of the joint where the ligaments holding the bones together meet.

Injury, overuse, or surgery can cause irritation to the capsule and bring inflammation to the area. As the shoulder capsule thickens and tightens, the joint becomes constricted, and movement is painful.

The pain caused by frozen shoulder forces you to use the arm or shoulder less, and a downward spiral begins. The initial cause of frozen shoulder is a lack of movement, so continuation of this only worsens the condition.

Initial pain causes stiffness, which reduces mobility which, in turn, causes further pain. Therefore, stretching and exercising are the best ways to treat a frozen shoulder and avoid the continuing spiral of pain and discomfort.

There are a number of risk factors that can increase your chances of developing frozen shoulder. Most of the affected individuals are women over the age of 40. Women are more likely to experience frozen shoulder than men due to hormonal imbalance.

Undergoing surgery, which will require immobility during recovery, or living a sedentary lifestyle are additional risk factors. In addition, recovery from stroke or cardiac disease, which affects the nerves in your arm, will also place you at risk.

The Best Natural Treatments

While medical treatment involving steroids, painkillers, and numbing medications is available, many people prefer natural treatments. The benefit of the natural methods is that you focus on the underlying issue, so the condition is less likely to return.

Anti-inflammatory medications will definitely help you ease the pain to get through each day, but the approaches below will work to eliminate the problem for a longer period.

Heat

Heating the shoulder area before any stretching or exercise delivers additional blood to the area, preventing further injury. Application of heat for 10 or 15 minutes or a hot shower followed by some light circular motions is a good way to gradually get the shoulder active again.

Physical Therapy

Lighter exercises at home will certainly help, but if the pain is persistent, you should see a physical therapist who can design a regimen of stretches that will loosen the stiffness and support mobility over an 8- to 12-week course.

Numbing the Pain

Aside from painkillers, there are natural alternatives to help you with the pain of a frozen shoulder. Essential oils such as peppermint oil are great for reducing inflammation and boosting circulation. Additionally, massage therapy and acupuncture have been proven to help.

Reduce Inflammation

Following an anti-inflammatory diet and taking supplements is the best way to reduce overall inflammation in your body and to prevent future occurrences. Fresh fruit and vegetables, probiotic foods, turmeric, and omega-3 fatty acid supplements are all ideal.

Exercises

There are several great exercises or stretches for frozen shoulder. Your physician or physical therapist will have a list for you to choose from, but the top three recommendations are here for you:

Pendulum stretch – Relax your shoulders and allow the affected arm to hang down, then swing the arm in small circles for ten minutes in each direction. As you notice stiffness decrease, you can do more repetitions.

Towel stretch – Take a small towel and bring it behind your back, grabbing one side with each hand. The towel should be running vertically down your back. Pull the top arm upwards and the bottom one down simultaneously to stretch the shoulder muscles. You want to do between 10 and 20 of these daily, alternating which arm goes on top.

Armpit stretch – Place the affected arm on a breast-high shelf or countertop. Slightly bend and straighten your knees, coming into a squat, opening your armpit. Twenty times a day for this stretch is beneficial.

After following a stretching regimen to get your shoulder mobile again, it is a good idea to start exercising regularly. Check with your physician first and make sure you always warm-up and cool down appropriately before exercise.

Always keep an eye out for returning symptoms, so you do not re-injure yourself. Ideal exercises include jogging, swimming, water aerobics, and cycling, as they keep inflammation down and provide good ranges of movement.

The Bottom Line

Frozen shoulder does not have to ruin your life. While it is very uncomfortable, there are many ways to decrease pain levels and help prevent it from returning. The number one cause is immobility so staying active is essential.

When the condition arises from a forced lack of movement, such as after surgery, speak with your doctor about what you can do right away. It is important to remember that frozen shoulder is more than just a stiff shoulder and can be very debilitating if not treated. So the last thing you want to do is give it the cold shoulder.