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Frozen Shoulder Treatment: Self Care and Massage

Frozen shoulder syndrome (also called adhesive capsulitis) is a painful condition that prevents you from moving your shoulder and arm through their full range of motion.

This condition occurs in the glenohumeral joint, sometimes called the shoulder joint, where the upper arm bone meets the shoulder blade. Surrounding the joint is a capsule that contains fluid to lubricate the joint, ligaments to hold the joint together, and other soft tissue.

If you develop inflammation, scarring, thickening, and shrinkage of the capsule, your shoulder can become frozen. Although the cause is often unknown, what happens is that part of the joint capsule sticks to itself, creating pain when you attempt to move your arm.

Shoulder Joint

Sometimes, other shoulder problems are mistakenly labeled frozen shoulder, so an accurate diagnosis from a professional healthcare provider is important.

A distinguishing characteristic of this shoulder problem is that the first restricted motion is you cannot externally rotate (turn the palm forward) your arm. The next restriction is you cannot lift your arm to the side, and then you cannot internally rotate your arm. (This order of motion restriction is the capsular pattern for a shoulder that's frozen; other shoulder problems will have other capsular patterns.)

A Physical Therapist's Perspective

Brian Schiff, a licensed physical therapist and author of The Ultimate Frozen Shoulder Therapy Guide provides the following self care tips. As always, see a healthcare practitioner for advice specific to your situation. 

  • During your daily activities, support the arm of the affected shoulder with a soft pillow or cushion when available. This support prevents the downward force of gravity from putting increased strain on the rotator cuff.
  • Use ice to relieve pain and reduce inflammation, especially after periods of increased activity. Use heat to reduce stiffness, especially first thing in the morning—a warm shower works, as does a heating pack.
  • Don't force your arm to move in ways that are painful, unless you must. Moving through painful ranges of motion compresses the rotator cuff, because the movement causes abnormal joint mechanics, which often further aggravates the symptoms. However, do move your arm within pain limits to avoid losing more mobility.
  • Don't use only one arm to lift anything, and don't do heavy overhead lifting during periods of inflammation.
  • Do arm pendulum exercises (clockwise and counterclockwise circles) for 20 to 30 repetitions one or twice every day. (Start with fewer reps and work your way up, stopping if pain increases.) How to do this exercise: Bend over from your hips, supporting one hand on a solid table or other object while letting the other arm hand down. Let the hanging arm rotate gently in a circle, without forcefully moving the shoulder.
  • Use a pillow under the arm at night to support the painful shoulder.

Massage For Frozen Shoulder

Massage for this shoulder problem may start with relaxation techniques on the muscles around the shoulder. The massage therapist may then use active engagement techniques, where you contract a muscle and the therapist does a massage technique as you release the contraction.

The massage therapist may also release myofascial trigger points (irritable points that cause pain in a location other than at the point itself). Another option is slow, gentle stretching of the shoulder muscles.

Dealing with this shoulder problem is often a long process—the problem can last a year or more, even with treatment. Patience and a gentle approach is likely to yield the best results. Ask massage therapists about their experience dealing with frozen shoulder.

Shoulder Anatomy

If you want to understand more about shoulder anatomy here's a video with a clear explanation of the structures of the shoulder.

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Photo Credit: staras / 123RF Stock Photo

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