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No More Frozen Shoulder: 5 Steps to Healing Rotator Cuff Pain

Have you ever experienced challenges with your shoulders, when one shoulder is stiff or unyielding, causing you discomfort if you move your arm in a particular direction? Or perhaps your frozen shoulder was more severe, and you had trouble sleeping at night because of pain? What follows are five interventions to help you unfreeze your shoulder and restore an injured rotator cuff back to good health.

Proven Ways to Thaw Frozen Shoulder & Restore Rotator Cuff Mobility

Shoulder pain is very common. It can sometimes be quite serious, but it’s not unusual.

While a particular exercise or activity may seem to be the immediate cause of an injury, the true underlying cause of shoulder strain is often the accumulation of stress on the shoulder joint over a prolonged period due to repetitive movements and postures.

Your body is remarkably adaptable, but when it’s subjected to the same movements and positions day after day, it can create imbalances, weakness, and tension in the muscles, tendons, and joints.

Over time, these imbalances can you more susceptible to injury, even if the activity that triggers the injury seems relatively minor.

For example, if you spend most of your day driving or sitting at a computer, you may develop a forward head posture and rounded, internally rotated shoulders.

With your hands on the steering wheel or keyboard, there is a slight internal rotation occurring in the shoulder. While the shoulder is designed to be able to internally rotate, to do it for several hours in a row – for several days in a row – is perhaps not within the capability of the joint’s original design.

How Rounded Shoulders Lead to Rotator Cuff Impingement

The internally rotated posture can cause the muscles in the front of your chest (pectorals) to become tight and shortened, while the muscles in the back of your shoulders (rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers) become weak and lengthened.

Physical therapist helping patient with frozen shoulder and an injured rotator cuff.

A healthy ball-and-socket joint, such as the shoulder, relies on a balance of mobility and stability provided by the rotator cuff muscles, ligaments, and the joint capsule to function smoothly and painlessly through its full range of motion:

  • The ball, or head, of the humerus fits into the shallow socket, or glenoid cavity, of the scapula.
  • The rotator cuff muscles work together to keep the head of the humerus centered in the glenoid cavity during arm movements, while also allowing for rotation, elevation, and abduction of the arm.

An imbalance within this area of your body leads to poor shoulder mechanics and an increased risk of “impingement,” especially when you engage in overhead movements or lifting activities.

This impingement occurs when the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles become compressed or pinched in the narrow space beneath the acromion (the bony prominence at the top of the shoulder blade) and the humerus (upper arm bone):

  • The rotator cuff tendons and the bursa (a fluid-filled sac that reduces friction between the tendons and bones) pass through the subacromial space.
  • When this space is narrowed, either due to structural abnormalities, inflammation, or repetitive overhead arm movements, the tendons and bursa can become impinged, leading to pain, inflammation, and reduced shoulder mobility.

Goodbye Rotator Cuff Pain: 5 Methods for Frozen Shoulder Relief

Frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, is a painful and debilitating condition that affects millions of people worldwide.

This condition can make even the simplest tasks – such as reaching for a cup or brushing your hair – seem like insurmountable challenges.

 

If you’re suffering from frozen shoulder, you know firsthand how frustrating and disheartening it can be to lose the ability to move your arm freely.

The good news is – that with the right interventions and a committed approach – you can thaw your frozen shoulder and restore your rotator cuff to its former glory.

These 5 tips should help considerably.

1. Understand the Three Stages of Frozen Shoulder

Frozen shoulder is a condition that typically progresses through three stages: the freezing stage, the frozen stage, and the thawing stage.

In the freezing stage, the capsule surrounding the joint becomes inflamed and thickened, leading to the formation of adhesions that restrict movement.

In the frozen stage, sharp pain and “clicking” can prevent the area from gliding freely and seriously restrict your range of motion.

2. See Your Doctor or Physical Therapist

The cumulative effects of repetitive stress can weaken the shoulder tendons and make them more vulnerable to a sudden tear or strain.

When that happens, ideally you will consult with your medical doctor or a physiotherapist to help you in the thawing stage of frozen shoulder.

A physiotherapist (or physical therapist) is a healthcare professional who specializes in the treatment of various musculoskeletal (and sometimes neurological or cardiorespiratory) conditions.

What they do depends on the country, but often it’s a combination of manual therapy techniques – such as deep tissue massage – exercise prescription, patient education, and modalities such as heat, cold, electrical stimulation, “needling” (or acupuncture), and using physio tape to help you reduce pain, improve mobility, restore function, and prevent future injuries.

A research study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy establishes proven and effective treatment approaches for frozen shoulder syndrome:

  • For starters, intra-articular corticosteroid injections combined with shoulder mobility and stretching exercises are more effective in providing short-term (4-6 weeks) pain relief and improved function compared to shoulder mobility and stretching exercises alone.
  • Shortwave diathermy, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation can be additionally helpful.

Physiotherapists can be incredibly helpful in addressing a wide range of conditions, from acute sports injuries and post-surgical rehabilitation to chronic pain and age-related mobility issues.

A particularly talented therapist will empower you to take an active role in your own recovery and long-term health, working closely with you to develop a personalized treatment plan that targets your specific needs.

Though progress may be slow at first, with consistent effort and patience, you will see improvements over time.

3. Switch Between Hot and Cold

There are benefits to hot and cold therapy. Applying heat and cold to your shoulder – intermittently – can be a simple yet powerful way to manage pain and promote healing.

Heat therapy, such as using a warm compress or taking a warm shower, can help to relax tight muscles, increase blood flow, and reduce stiffness.

Cold therapy, such as using an ice pack or taking an ice bath, can help to numb pain, reduce inflammation, and prevent further tissue damage.

Mature, fit woman exercising outdoors to heal her rotator cuff and thaw her frozen shoulder.

4. Do Postural Moves, Stretches, Ergonomics, and Mobility Drills

Poor posture and ergonomics can exacerbate frozen shoulder symptoms and delay recovery.

When sitting or standing, aim to keep your shoulders back and down, your chest open, and your head neutral.

Avoid slouching or hunching forward, as this can put extra stress on your shoulder joint.

When working at a desk or using a computer, ensure that your workstation is set up ergonomically, with your screen at eye level, your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, and your feet flat on the floor.

Taking frequent breaks to stretch and move your body can also help to prevent stiffness and promote circulation. The efficacy of this is greatly underestimated. Remember, it was repetitive negative movement patterns that likely got you into this situation, so disrupting those patterns will likely be the key to your successful healing!

Here are 6 mobility movements and stretches that can be done to help keep your shoulder from stiffening up.

Pendulum Swings: Stand with your good arm supporting your body on a table or chair. Let your affected arm hang down and gently swing it in small circles, gradually increasing the size of the circles. Perform 10 circles clockwise and 10 counterclockwise. This exercise helps to loosen the shoulder joint and increase blood flow to the area.

Shoulder Shrugs: Stand with your arms at your sides. Slowly lift your shoulders toward your ears, hold for 2-3 seconds, and then lower them back down. Repeat 10-15 times. This exercise helps to release tension in the upper trapezius muscles and promote relaxation.

Arm Circles: Stand with your arms extended out to the sides at shoulder level. Make small circular motions with your arms, gradually increasing the size of the circles. Perform 10 circles forward and 10 circles backward. This exercise helps to warm up the rotator cuff muscles and improve shoulder flexibility.

Doorway Pec Stretch: Stand in a doorway with your arms bent at a 90-degree angle and your hands and forearms resting on the door frame. Gently lean forward until you feel a stretch in your chest and the front of your shoulders. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then release. Repeat 2-3 times. This stretch targets the pectoral muscles, which can become tight and contribute to poor shoulder posture.

Cross-Body Arm Stretch: Stand with your affected arm extended across your body at chest level. Use your opposite hand to gently pull your elbow toward your opposite shoulder until you feel a stretch in the back of your shoulder. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then release. Repeat 2-3 times. This stretch targets the posterior capsule of the shoulder joint, which can become tight in frozen shoulder.

Wall Slides: Stand facing a wall, with your hands placed on the wall at shoulder height. Slowly slide your hands up the wall, keeping your arms straight and your body close to the wall. Go as high as you comfortably can, then slowly slide your hands back down. Repeat 10-15 times. This exercise helps to improve shoulder flexibility and range of motion in a controlled manner.

Remember, these exercises should be performed gently and within your pain-free range of motion.

You likely know this already, but it bears repeating: performing a proper warm-up before engaging in strenuous exercise is crucial for reducing risk of injury and preparing your body for the demands of the physical activity.

5. Rest and Recover

If you’re like me, this last tip might be the hardest to implement.

For the most part, I enjoy my workouts, so having to take a week or two off from exercise so that I can heal an injured part of my body can be very difficult!

However, sometimes, it just has to be done.

Allowing adequate time for rest and recovery between bouts of repetitive stress to prevent the accumulation of micro-traumas is absolutely essential.

If you’re like me in that you hate to take a couple of weeks off from your exercise routine, you might find that incorporating mind-body techniques can save your sanity!

Methods such as deep breathing, meditation, and relaxation exercises can help to reduce stress, manage pain, and promote a sense of calm and resilience.

Gentle yoga or tai chi practices can also be beneficial, as they combine mindfulness with low-impact movements that can improve flexibility and balance.

Because the mind and body are interconnected, addressing both can lead to a more holistic and effective recovery.

Conclusion on Healing Frozen Shoulder and the Interventions for Restoring a Rotator Cuff

Perhaps the most important intervention for frozen shoulder is a healthy dose of patience and persistence.

Recovery from this condition is often a slow and gradual process, with ups and downs along the way.

It’s crucial to stay committed to your treatment plan, even when progress feels slow or setbacks occur.

Celebrate small victories, such as being able to reach a little higher or experiencing less pain during daily activities.

Surround yourself with a supportive network of family, friends, and healthcare professionals who can offer encouragement and guidance along the way.

I generally try to avoid pain meds whenever possible, because I like to give my liver and kidneys a rest. Also, I’m concerned that if I numb the pain, I might unintentionally make a sudden movement that re-injures my shoulder (sometimes, pain serves an important purpose in healing).

However, if the pain is truly debilitating, it’s nice to know that over-the-counter pain relievers – such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen – might help to reduce discomfort and improve function. Though medication alone won’t cure frozen shoulder, it can be a valuable tool in managing pain and inflammation. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe stronger anti-inflammatory medications or even corticosteroid injections to target stubborn inflammation, but it’s important to use medication as directed and to discuss any concerns or side effects with your healthcare provider.

Frozen shoulder may feel like an icy prison, but with the right interventions and a determined spirit, you can break free and reclaim your mobility.

By understanding the condition, engaging in physical therapy, using heat and cold therapy, optimizing your posture and ergonomics, embracing mind-body techniques, and cultivating patience and persistence, you can thaw your frozen shoulder and restore your rotator cuff to its former strength and flexibility.

Every journey begins with a single step, and every degree of movement regained is a triumph worth celebrating.

So take a deep breath, roll your shoulders back, and embark on the path to recovery with confidence and hope.

Your shoulder may be frozen now, but with time, effort, and the right interventions, it will thaw, and you will emerge stronger, more resilient, and ready to embrace all the possibilities that life has to offer.