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Exercises may relieve frozen shoulder

Anthony L. Komaroff Universal Uclick

DEAR DOCTOR K: Is there any way to unfreeze a frozen shoulder?

DEAR READER: The term “frozen shoulder” describes a condition in which pain and stiffness cause a loss of the normal range of motion.

Normally, the shoulder has a wide and varied range of motion.

A frozen shoulder usually begins when injury or overuse causes pain that, in turn, limits the shoulder’s range of motion. Common conditions that cause pain in the shoulder are bursitis or a tear in the rotator cuff.

Try this experiment: Stick your hand out straight in front of you at eye level. Then move it all the way up until your fingers are pointing to the ceiling, and then all the way down. Then stick your arm straight out to the side and move it all the way up and down. Now try running the tip of your thumb up the middle of your back.

If in any of these maneuvers you heard or felt a little “click” or “pop,” a part of your shoulder had started to stiffen – and you just loosened it up again. If you found that you couldn’t do some of these maneuvers at all because of pain or stiffness, you might already have a frozen shoulder.

An anti-inflammatory medication such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can help relieve pain and inflammation. A corticosteroid injection may help decrease inflammation.

But the cornerstone of treatment is physical therapy. At first you’ll concentrate on exercises that stretch the joint capsule. Then you’ll move on to strengthening exercises.

Full recovery can take several months or even longer. If you don’t improve steadily, go back to your doctor or consult a shoulder expert. In rare cases, a frozen shoulder that doesn’t respond to the treatments I’ve discussed may require surgery. Fortunately, that’s not often necessary.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.
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