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How Do I Know If I Have a Frozen Shoulder?

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Updated March 02, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: How Do I Know If I Have a Frozen Shoulder?

 

A friend of mine recently has been diagnosed with a frozen shoulder. She has been unable to move her arm, and when she does it causes quite a bit of pain. She is also having difficulty performing simple tasks like reaching into a cabinet and washing her back.

Lately my shoulder has been hurting, and I was wondering if I also might have a frozen shoulder. How do I know if my shoulder is frozen?

Answer:

A frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, can be a scary experience and it may be a cause of shoulder pain. It usually occurs slowly over time, and it can limit the functional use of your arm.

When you have a frozen shoulder, shoulder pain and tightness may make it difficult to reach overhead to perform such simple activities like putting away dishes or combing your hair. If you are a female, you may have difficulty reaching behind your back to fasten your bra. Men might have a hard time reaching into their back pocket to grab their wallet. Putting on a belt may be painful as well.

There is no special test for the diagnosis of a frozen shoulder, nor is there a diagnostic test like an x-ray or MRI to confirm the condition. A frozen shoulder diagnosis is made by observing the range of motion of your shoulder. Here is how you can do it:

  • Stand in front of a mirror, or have a friend or family member observe you as you move your arm and shoulder. You or your friend should be watching for the quantity of your shoulder motion as well as the quality of the motion.
  • Slowly raise both arms up in front of you and overhead. If you have a frozen shoulder, your painful arm may only raise to a point just past parallel with the floor. Plus, your shoulder blade will rise up unnaturally and your painful shoulder may move up towards your ear. As you lift your arm, you may also feel pain in your shoulder. Slowly lower your arm.
  • Then, slowly lift your arm out to the side, again observing the amount of motion that occurs. If your shoulder only goes up to a point that is just level with the floor, and if it is painful, then you may have a frozen shoulder. Your shoulder may also move up towards your ear like in the previous motion test.
  • Finally, stand with both arms at your side and keep your elbows bent to 90 degrees. While keeping your elbows tucked into your sides, rotate your arms out. This direction of motion is called external rotation. If you have a frozen shoulder, the painful side will not rotate out as far as your non-painful arm.

If you have performed the motions and you feel you may have a frozen shoulder, call your doctor or physical therapist so he or she can evaluate your condition.

Physical therapy for a frozen shoulder usually involves techniques and modalities to help decrease your pain. Exercises to improve the range of motion of your shoulder may be prescribed, and your physical therapist can teach you what to do (and what not to do). Typically strength is not affected when you have a frozen shoulder, but your physical therapist may work with you to help you improve the functional mobility of your arm. Don't worry, surgery for a frozen shoulder is rarely indicated.

A frozen shoulder can be a painful experience, but it can quickly be resolved with a little help from your physical therapist. If you suspect you have a frozen shoulder, or if you have any other painful shoulder condition, visit your doctor and ask if physical therapy is the right treatment for you.

 

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