The inability to move the shoulder—with or without help—is a classic sign of frozen shoulder. Other possible symptoms include:

Achy, diffuse pain. This pain is felt over the shoulder and occasionally on the upper arm. Pain begins gradually, and intensifies with shoulder movement. Pain is usually worse during the early phase of the condition and decreases in later phases of this condition.

Shoulder stiffness. A noticeable decrease in the shoulder’s range of motion occurs as the shoulder’s joint capsule tightens. People with frozen shoulder typically have pain with arm movement, so they try to avoid it. But avoiding arm movement can lead to more stiffness. Mobility improves and may be completely restored as the condition gets better.

Trouble sleeping. Sleeping on the affected side usually uncomfortable or even painful.

Frozen shoulder symptoms may be more severe in people who have diabetes.1Frozen shoulder causes. National Health Services website. Last reviewed March 17, 2016. Accessed August 12, 2016.


Phases of Frozen Shoulder

Specific symptoms are associated with the three different stages of frozen shoulder.

1. Freezing (the painful phase)
This initial stage ranges from 6 weeks to 9 months, with pain increasing gradually over time. As pain intensifies, the shoulder eventually loses range of motion. Pain worsens at night and sleeping becomes difficult. Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, may not adequately treat pain.

2. Frozen (the stiff, or adhesive phase)
During this 4 to 6-month period, shoulder pain may lessen. However, the shoulder joint stiffens in this phase, and day-to-day activities such as getting dressed are challenging. Shoulder muscles can weaken from inactivity—possibly resulting in changes visible to the patient and/or doctor.

3. Thawing (the recovery phase)
The thawing stage can last 6 months to 2 years. The strength and motion of the shoulder may completely or partially return to normal. Pain continues to lessen during this phase, too.


In general, people report that their symptoms are most severe when the condition first begins, during the freezing stage.

  • 1 Frozen shoulder causes. National Health Services website. Last reviewed March 17, 2016. Accessed August 12, 2016.

Dr. Pietro Tonino is an orthopedic surgeon and the Program Director of Sports Medicine at Loyola University Health System. He specializes in shoulder, knee, and elbow injuries. Dr. Tonino also serves as a Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.