The cornerstone of treatment for a frozen shoulder is physical therapy, concentrating first on exercises that stretch the joint capsule, and later, on strengthening exercises.
As you work to stretch the shoulder capsule, you should avoid any activities that require overhead reaching, lifting, or anything else that aggravates your pain. Full recovery takes time — from several months to two or three years. If you don’t improve steadily or if you reach a plateau, talk with your doctor.
Stretching exercises for frozen shoulder
Always warm up your shoulder before performing your exercises. The best way to do that is to take a warm shower or bath for 10 to 15 minutes. You can also use a moist heating pad or damp towel heated in the microwave, but it may not be as effective.
In performing the following exercises, stretch to the point of tension but not pain.
Pendulum stretch. Perform this exercise first. Relax your shoulders. Stand and lean over slightly, allowing your affected arm to hang down. Swing the arm in a small circle — about a foot in diameter. Perform 10 revolutions in each direction, once a day. As your symptoms improve, increase the diameter of your swing, but never force it. When you’re ready for more, increase the stretch by holding a light weight (three to five pounds) in the swinging arm.
Towel stretch. Grasp a three-foot-long towel with both hands behind your back, and hold it in a horizontal position. Use your good arm to pull the affected arm upward to stretch it. You can also perform an advanced version of this exercise with the towel draped over your good shoulder. Grasp the bottom of the towel with the affected arm and pull it toward the lower back with the unaffected arm. Do this 10 to 20 times a day.
Finger walk. Face a wall three-quarters of an arm’s length away. Reach out and touch the wall at waist level with the fingertips of the affected arm. With your elbow slightly bent, slowly walk your fingers up the wall, spider-like, until you’ve raised your arm to shoulder level, or as far as you comfortably can. Your fingers should be doing the work, not your shoulder muscles. Slowly lower the arm (with the help of the good arm, if necessary) and repeat. Perform this exercise 10 to 20 times a day.
Cross-body reach. Sit or stand. Use your good arm to lift your affected arm at the elbow, and bring it up and across your body, exerting gentle pressure to stretch the shoulder. Hold the stretch for 15 to 20 seconds. Do this 10 to 20 times per day.
Armpit stretch. Using your good arm, lift the affected arm onto a shelf about breast-high. Gently bend your knees, opening up the armpit. Deepen your knee bend slightly, gently stretching the armpit, and then straighten. With each knee bend, stretch a little further, but don’t force it. Do this 10 to 20 times each day.
Starting to strengthen
After your range of motion improves, you can add rotator cuff–strengthening exercises. Be sure to warm up your shoulder and do your stretching exercises before you perform strengthening exercises.
Outward rotation. Hold a rubber exercise band between your hands with your elbows at a 90-degree angle close to your sides. Rotate the lower part of the affected arm outward two or three inches and hold for five seconds. Repeat 10 to 15 times, once a day.
Inward rotation. Stand next to a closed door, and hook one end of a rubber exercise band around the doorknob. Grasp the other end with the hand of the affected arm, holding the elbow at a 90-degree angle. Pull the band toward your body two or three inches and hold for five seconds. Repeat 10 to 15 times, once a day.