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Physical Therapy for Frozen Shoulder – Information, Exercises, and More

Washing your hair, putting dishes away, getting dressed. 

When you have a frozen shoulder, simple, everyday tasks slowly become inconvenient, and eventually difficult, or even impossible. 

Because immobility in the arm and shoulder happens slowly over time, it can be a frustrating and scary experience, especially when undiagnosed.

Untreated, a frozen shoulder will heal on its own … but that can mean dealing with pain and stiffness for up to three years.

If that sounds too long to struggle with hair washing and getting dressed each day, read on to find out how you can relieve your pain and speed up recovery from a frozen shoulder.

What is Frozen Shoulder?

Frozen shoulder (which is also called adhesive capsulitis) is a common disorder that causes pain, stiffness, and loss of normal range of motion in the shoulder.

Your shoulder is made up of three bones that form a ball and socket joint:

  • Humerus (upper arm)
  • Scapula (shoulder blade)
  • Clavicle (collarbone)

There’s also tissue surrounding your shoulder holding everything together. This is called the shoulder capsule.

With a frozen shoulder, the capsule becomes so thick and tight that it’s difficult to move.

The condition can be seriously debilitating and often worsens over time if left untreated.

What Causes Frozen Shoulder?

It isn’t clear why some people experience frozen shoulder symptoms. However, some groups of people are more at risk. You’re more likely to develop a frozen shoulder if you’re:

  • Between the ages of 40 and 60
  • A woman (frozen shoulder happens more often in women)
  • Recovering from a stroke, broken arm, or a surgery that keeps you from moving your arm (mastectomy, rotator cuff, etc.)
  • Have diabetes 
  • Have Parkinson’s Disease

Experts suspect frozen shoulder materializes when the joint becomes inflamed and scar tissue forms. As this happens, the tissue inside the joint shrinks and hardens, making the shoulder harder to move.

Frozen Shoulder Symptoms

Frozen shoulder usually develops slowly, and in three stages. Each stage can last several months.

Freezing Stage

During the freezing stage, any movement of your shoulder causes pain—sometimes severe. The pain gets worse over time and may be more noticeable at night. 

Your shoulder slowly loses range-of-motion. This stage can last 2-9 months. 

Frozen Stage

This stage is usually less painful. However, stiffness increases, and using it becomes more difficult, making everyday activities very challenging. 

This stage can last 4-12 months.

Thawing Stage

During the thawing stage, the patient experiences a gradual return of range of motion in the shoulder and arm that takes about 5–26 months to complete. 

It’s a slow process, but strength and motion abilities return to normal or nearly normal.

Once your shoulder heals, a frozen shoulder rarely returns. However, some people may experience it in the opposite shoulder.

Frozen Shoulder Treatment

Over-the-counter pain relievers may help reduce pain and inflammation. If your pain doesn’t improve, doctors may suggest additional treatments.

Corticosteroid Injection

Injecting corticosteroids into your shoulder joint may help decrease pain and improve shoulder mobility, especially in the early stages of the process. 

However, this is an effective option for short-term symptom relief rather than long-term recovery.

This is a good option for relieving pain before beginning physical therapy exercises for frozen shoulder. 

Joint Distension

Joint distension happens when sterile water is injected into the joint capsule. This can help stretch the tissue and make it easier to move the joint.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is the most common treatment for a frozen shoulder. The goal is to stretch and strengthen your shoulder joint—regaining the lost motion. 


Surgery to treat a frozen shoulder is rare. However, if other treatments haven’t helped, your doctor may suggest surgery. 

Surgery is typically performed during the “frozen stage” or stage two. The goal of surgery is to stretch and release the stiffened joint capsule and remove scar tissue that may contribute to the problem.

The surgery is usually done arthroscopically through two to three small incisions as an outpatient procedure.

Post-surgery, patients will need to continue physical therapy for several weeks to prevent frozen shoulder from returning.

Frozen Shoulder Physical Therapy – Will PT Help?

Does physical therapy help frozen shoulder?

Resoundingly, yes. 

In more than 90% of cases, frozen shoulder goes away with physical therapy and time. 

Physical therapy helps people with frozen shoulder combat pain and stiffness and also helps them safely restore shoulder movement.

Treating a frozen shoulder takes time. Even with physical therapy, it may take six months to a year before your full shoulder function is restored.

Best Frozen Shoulder Exercises

Resting the affected arm does not help it heal. 

Resting the shoulder can make the condition worse because it allows more adhesions to develop around the shoulder capsule.

This is why exercising a frozen shoulder is so important, even if it is uncomfortable.

In addition to sessions with a physical therapist, people with a frozen shoulder should take an active role in their recovery, performing stretches, and exercises daily. 

Your physical therapist will devise a treatment plan specifically for you and your needs, but frozen shoulder physical therapy exercises to increase range-of-motion may include:

  • Crossbody reach
  • Pendulum stretch
  • Finger walk
  • Inward rotation
  • Outward rotation

Reminders for exercising frozen shoulder:

  • Always warm up your shoulder before performing your frozen shoulder exercises. This can be achieved by taking a warm shower or bath or by using a heating pad.
  • When performing the above exercises for frozen shoulder, stretch to the point of tension but not pain.

How In Motion O.C. Can Help With Frozen Shoulder

Expertise. Compassion. Individualized treatment. Not to mention a state-of-the-art facility and physical therapists who specialize in shoulder treatment. 

Those are just a few of the reasons In Motion O.C. is voted #1 on Yelp for physical therapists. 

It will take time and hard work, but there’s no reason to struggle with pain every time you reach for something. 

Let the certified physical therapists at In Motion O.C. help you ‘unfreeze’ that frozen shoulder.

*This information about physical therapy for frozen shoulder was reviewed by Dr Natalie Thomas, PT, DPT. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us here.

In Motion O.C.