Shoulder pain is not ideal, but knowing exactly what you’re dealing with is key
I had no idea that I was experiencing a frozen shoulder. The first time an electric jolt of pain shot down my right arm from my shoulder, I was reaching behind my back to tuck in my shirt. It felt like a lightning bolt zapping me for 20 seconds.
A few days later, it happened again – this time, I slipped in ski boots and flung my arm up to catch myself. I immediately doubled over from searing pain caused by the sudden movement. At the same time, my range of motion was slowly decreasing. Everyday tasks like styling hair, putting on a fitted shirt and reaching for top-shelf pantry items were becoming more difficult. (And if your back is giving you a hard time, here’s a few natural home remedies to relieve your back pain.)
My shoulder had been acting funny for months – weirdly loose, clicking upon rotation and sore at night if I slept on my right side. I could no longer ignore the fact that something was wrong. X-rays and an ultrasound came back with no sign of obvious injury, yet the pain and stiffening still persisted. Eventually, my family doctor referred me to a sports-medicine specialist, who made a quick diagnosis after testing my range of motion and strength: frozen shoulder.
What is frozen shoulder?
Frozen shoulder (FS), also called adhesive capsulitis, is a condition where the connective tissues surrounding the shoulder joint become inflamed and scar tissue forms inside the capsule, causing extreme pain and stiffness. (Ease joint pain with these foods and supplements.)
It affects between three and five per cent of the population, most commonly women between the ages of 40 and 60, says Dr. Ryan Bicknell, a shoulder and elbow surgeon and an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery and mechanical and materials engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON.
It’s also more common in people with diabetes and hypothyroidism, possibly because those conditions involve abnormalities of the endocrine system, which – among other duties, such as insulin production and hormonal balance – works to regulate inflammation in the body.
Frozen shoulder is a bit of a medical mystery
Like any good story, medical or otherwise, there’s some mystery surrounding the condition when it happens in otherwise-healthy people like me.
In some instances, frozen shoulder is associated with a traumatic injury, such as dislocation or a rotator cuff tear, but in most cases it’s deemed “idiopathic,” meaning that it comes on for no particular reason.
That’s what happened to Jennifer Twyman, too.
“I woke up one morning and a tiny ache started in my shoulder,” says Twyman, a 53-year-old photojournalist and mother of three. “I thought I had just slept on it funny, but then it got worse and worse until I couldn’t even lift my arm.”
I felt the same way about my shoulder – it seemingly came out of nowhere. But the more I thought about it, the more I was certain it was brought on by repetitive strain from our dog – a birder who is prone to erratic lurching (shoulder pulling) if she sees anything with feathers while on a leash.
Leigh Garvie, a sports specialist with the Canadian Physiotherapy Association and a physiotherapist and owner of Coronation Physiotherapy in Edmonton, is also convinced that the condition is triggered by something, even if it’s just an unremarkable accident.
“In practise, I see a lot of people where I think (the frozen shoulder) has come from a trauma, even if it’s a minor trauma,” says Garvie. “It sets off inflammation in the area and then, depending on the injury, the inflammation spreads or the immobility allows it to stiffen up. You don’t want to move your arm because it hurts, and that’s really why it gets stiff: because you stop moving your arm.” (Should you try the anti-inflammation diet to deal with pain?)
The shoulder is unique from other bend-and-extend joints in that it has an extreme range of motion – almost 360 degrees – that makes it more susceptible to injury, says Dr. Bicknell. “The shoulder almost dislocates or partially dislocates with normal range of motion, so it’s a joint that doesn’t stay perfectly concentric in normal day-to-day activities,” says Dr. Bicknell. “Is that part of what can lead to more trauma to that capsule on a daily basis and predispose you to frozen shoulder? Possibly.”