Therapy and time can help a frozen shoulder - Albuquerque Journal

Therapy and time can help a frozen shoulder

Dear Mayo Clinic: Is frozen shoulder always improved with physical therapy, or are there sometimes other measures that must be taken? How long should it take to heal?

A: In many cases, physical therapy is all that’s needed to treat frozen shoulder. It can take time, however. Even with treatment, it may be six months to a year before full function is restored. If there’s ongoing pain involved or if physical therapy isn’t enough to resolve the problem, then medication injections or, rarely, surgery may be necessary to treat frozen shoulder.

Frozen shoulder, also called adhesive capsulitis, happens when the ligaments that hold the shoulder joint in place tighten due to inflammation and restrict the joint’s movement. The condition typically progresses through three stages. During the first stage, moving the shoulder becomes painful. In the second stage, the pain subsides, but the shoulder becomes stiffer and more difficult to move. In the third stage, the stiffness decreases and the shoulder’s range of motion gradually returns.

Physical therapy is the mainstay of treatment for frozen shoulder. A physical therapist can provide exercises to help restore the shoulder’s range of motion and mobility. In more than 90 percent of cases, frozen shoulder goes away with physical therapy and time. But, even when physical therapy is done consistently, it still may take up to a year to gain back all lost shoulder function.

The pain that characterizes the first stage of frozen shoulder usually can be managed with nonprescription medications that reduce inflammation, such as ibuprofen and aspirin. If that’s not enough, stronger prescription anti-inflammatory drugs may be useful.

In cases with significant pain and stiffness, an injection of a corticosteroid medication into the joint often is recommended. That medication can decrease inflammation and make physical therapy easier to perform. When shoulder stiffness is not accompanied by pain, corticosteroid injections are less beneficial.

Stiffness that lasts beyond a full course of physical therapy over six to 12 months or shoulder stiffness that gets significantly worse during physical therapy may signal that surgery is needed to release the tight ligaments and remove scar tissue that may contribute to the problem.


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