Physical therapy is usually the first treatment recommended to people with frozen shoulder. Over 90% of people with frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) get better with nonsurgical treatment.1

See Diagnosing Frozen Shoulder

Frozen shoulder occurs when inflammation of the joint capsule causes the shoulder ligaments to swell and thicken, resulting in scar tissue. Read: What to Know About Frozen Shoulder

People with frozen shoulder are advised to take an active role in their physical therapy, and remember:

  • Exercises and stretches are usually performed daily, sometimes multiple times each day.
  • Patience is key—it can take weeks to months to see improvement from physical therapy. Physical therapy exercises should be challenging but should not exacerbate pain.

See Frozen Shoulder Symptoms

Exercises and movements within a person’s pain threshold result in better outcomes, compared to intensive therapy that encourages a person to push through the pain.2 This fact means that people with moderate to severe cases of frozen shoulder may not be able to do all the exercises and stretches presented in this article, and that is okay.

See 5 Things You Need to Know if You Have Frozen Shoulder

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Common Frozen Shoulder Exercises

Below are exercises frequently recommended to treat frozen shoulder. A physician or physical therapist can provide a customized stretching and exercise plan, along with recommended durations and repetitions for each movement.

See Treating Frozen Shoulder

Experts advise warming the body up before starting physical therapy exercises. Apply a moist heating pad to the shoulder, for example, or take a warm shower.

Pendulum stretch

  • Stand next to a table or counter about waist-high. Place the hand of the healthy arm on the stationary object for support. Lean forward slightly without rounding the back. Let the affected arm dangle.
  • Swing the affected arm in small circle, about one foot in width, in one direction for about 10 revolutions. Then, reverse and swing the arm in circular movements in the opposite direction for 10 revolutions.

The diameter of the circle can increase as symptoms improve. This exercise can be made even more challenging by holding a small weight, about 3 to 5 pounds, in the hand of the affected arm while performing the same movements.

Finger walk

  • Stand facing a wall, about 6 to 8 inches away.
  • Using the hand of the affected arm, touch the wall just above waist level with the index and middle fingers. The elbow should be bent, making a “v” with the arm.
  • “Walk” the fingers up the wall, until the arm is raised as high as it can comfortably reach.

The healthy arm may need to help lower the affected one back to the starting position.

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Inward rotation
This strengthening exercise involves a rubber exercise band tied at the ends to make a loop.

  • Put one end of the loop around the door handle.
  • Stand to the side of the door, with the affected arm closest to the door.
  • The hand of the affected arm holds the other end of the loop. The elbow is at a 90-degree angle and rests close to the body.
  • Pull the band inward to the body a few inches. Hold the position for about 5 seconds.

Sleeper stretch:
This exercise may be suited to people who have relatively mild cases of frozen shoulder.

  • Lie down on the side of the affected arm, with the arm extended straight out. Bend the knees at an angle.
  • Bend the affected arm, so that the elbow forms a 90-degree angle. The forearm should be raised off the ground and the fingers pointed toward the ceiling.
  • Use the hand of the healthy arm to push the affected arm toward the ground (palm facing the ground).

Hold each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Perform the stretch 2 to 3 times each day.

References:

  1. Frozen Shoulder. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00071. Last reviewed January 2011. Accessed May 19, 2016.
  2. Page P, Labbe A. Adhesive capsulitis: use the evidence to integrate your interventions. N Am J Sports Phys Ther. 2010;5(4):266-73.
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