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Signs of Frozen Shoulder

Symptoms of Shoulder Pain and Stiffness from Adhesive Capsulitis


Updated May 28, 2014

Frozen shoulder signs and symptoms

Frozen shoulder causes pain and stiffness of the shoulder.

Medical Multimedia Group

A frozen shoulder causes typical symptoms that can be identified by your doctor. The most important finding in patients with a frozen shoulder is restricted movement. Other shoulder conditions can cause difficulty with movement of the shoulder, such as a rotator cuff tear; therefore it is important to have an examiner familiar with this condition to ensure a proper diagnosis.

Signs of Frozen Shoulder

  • Shoulder pain; usually a dull, aching pain
  • Limited movement of the shoulder
  • Difficulty with activities such as brushing hair, putting on shirts/bras
  • Pain when trying to sleep on the affected shoulder

Most often, a frozen shoulder can be diagnosed on examination, and no special tests are needed. An x-ray is usually obtained to ensure the shoulder joint appears normal, and there is not evidence of traumatic injury or shoulder arthritis.

An MRI is sometimes performed if the diagnosis of frozen shoulder is in question, but this test is better at looking for other problems, rather than looking for frozen shoulder. If an MRI is done, it is best performed with an injection of contrast fluid into the shoulder joint prior to the MRI. This will help show if the capsule of the shoulder is scarred down, as would be expected in patients with a frozen shoulder.

Stages of Frozen Shoulder

Frozen shoulder typically proceeds in predictable stages.  The average patient has symptoms of a frozen shoulder for 12-18 months.  The good news is that the most painful, restrictive phase of frozen shoulder is the earliest, and therefore symptoms can improve quickly.  However, it is almost always many months, if not more than a year, for symptoms to completely resolve.

  • Painful/Freezing Stage
    This is the most painful stage of a frozen shoulder. Motion is restricted, but the shoulder is not as stiff as the frozen stage. This painful stage typically lasts 6-12 weeks.


  • Frozen Stage
    During the frozen stage, the pain usually eases up, but the stiffness worsens. The frozen stage can last 4-6 months.


  • Thawing Stage
    The thawing stage is gradual, and motion steadily improves over a lengthy period of time. The thawing stage can last more than a year.
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