Causes and 5 Natural Treatments for Frozen Shoulder

What Causes Frozen Shoulder?

Risk factors for developing frozen shoulder include:

  • being over the age of 40; frozen shoulder affects people between 40 and 70 most often
  • healing from an injury or surgery that limits normal range of motion of the shoulder and arm
  • having hormonal imbalances, including a thyroid disorder or recently going through menopause
  • being a woman; researchers estimate that up to 70 percent of adults with frozen shoulder are women. Researchers believe that hormonal imbalances are one reason why more women experience frozen shoulder than men
  • recovering from a stroke or cervical disc disease that affects the nerves around the shoulder
  • not moving your arm due to other pain or injuries (such as arthritis, a rotator cuff tear, bursitis or tendonitis)
  • having a pre-existing inflammatory medical condition, including heart disease or diabetes
  • recently undergoing open heart surgery or spinal surgery
  • having high levels of inflammation, due to factors like eating a poor diet and living a sedentary lifestyle

Frozen shoulder is caused by a lack of movement and flexibility around the shoulder, along with inflammation of the shoulder capsule, joints and ligaments. The “capsule” of the shoulder joint contains ligaments that hold the shoulder bones together and help with normal motion and movement, but the capsule can become inflamed due to injury, overuse,  surgery or for other reasons that impair the shoulder bones’ ability to glide within the joints. As the shoulder capsule thickens and tightens, it constricts the joints of the shoulder joint even more and makes movement very painful.

Because inflammation associated with frozen shoulder starts out by causing pain, it usually results less movement. This kicks off a downward spiral, contributing to less movement and even more stiffness. In this way, unfortunately, frozen shoulder sometimes become a vicious cycle: initial pain and reduced mobility causes stiffness, which only causes further reduced mobility and pain. This is exactly why stretching and exercising the frozen shoulder helps prevent and resolve the condition.

Here are 5 ways to naturally threat your shoulder

Some doctors choose to treat very painful cases of frozen shoulder with steroids (like corticosteroids), numbing medications or painkillers, and rarely, even arthroscopic surgery to loosen the inflamed joint capsule. When pain becomes very bad, you can use an over-the-counter painkiller temporarily (like ibuprofen) to help you heal and go about your day normally. Ultimately, though, you want to focus on resolving the underlying condition to prevent pain from returning.

A natural approach to treating frozen shoulder involves gradually improving range of motion through practicing safe and targeted exercises, stretching the shoulder, using natural pain-killing treatments, and lowering inflammation. The University of Washington Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Department reports that “most stiff shoulders can be managed successfully by a simple exercise program conducted by the patient in their own home.”

1. Heat and Stretch the Shoulder

Before starting shoulder exercises for frozen shoulder, make sure to warm up your shoulder in order to boost blood supply in the affected area and prevent further injuries. Patience is key when it comes to treating a frozen shoulder, so give yourself time to heal and progress slowly. The goal is to gently, safely and progressively get the shoulder moving again, but this can sometimes take months, so don’t rush.

Some of the most effective ways to stretch and warmup the shoulder include applying heat for 10 to 15 minutes, taking a warm shower or bath (including one with Epsom salt) and starting to gently move the shoulder in small circular motions if possible. You can create your own heat pack or using a commercial heating pad.

While stretching the shoulder, you want to focus on slight tension and soreness, but not doing too much too soon. A good way to judge the intensity is to pay attention to soreness once you’re done stretching: it should go away in about 15 minutes. Make sure to relax and allow your muscles to loosen so that the stretch is being applied to soft (not tense and tight) tissue. To begin gently bringing more motion and flexibility to your stiff shoulder, try slowly practicing some of these simple shoulder stretches and movements 2 to 3 times daily:

  • sit or lie down and lift your arm straight above you
  • practice externally rotating the arm by opening and closing a cabinet or door
  • lie down and make a “T” shape by bringing your arms outward and to the floor

2. Exercises to Improve Shoulder Mobility

After warming up the stiff shoulder and making sure to stay relaxed (deep breathing can help here), researchers from Harvard Medical School recommend you complete the following series of shoulder/arm exercises described below. Stretch and move your shoulder to the point of feeling mild tension, but back off if you start to experience considerable pain. For the first couple weeks, work on improving flexibility and mobility, then you can move on to adding resistance to improve the strength of your shoulder.

  • Pendulum stretch: Relax your shoulders and stand; allow the affected arm to hang down. Start to swing the arm in a small circle about 10 times in each direction. Do this once daily to start, and decrease as you start to notice stiffness. Add more repetitions or complete more than one set each day. You can also work on adding a small amount of weight (holding a 3- to 5-pound dumbbell in your hand) or increasing the diameter of your arm swing slowly. This opens the shoulder more.
  • Towel stretch: Take a small towel (about 3 feet long) and hold each side with your hand, bringing the towel behind your back and grabbing the opposite end with your other hand. Pull the top arm upward to stretch your shoulders, while also pulling the other arm downward. Complete this stretch 10 to 20 times daily.
  • Finger walk: Stand in front of a wall with your fingertips on the wall at waist level, keeping your arm slightly bent. Slowly walk your fingers up the wall, working on lengthening the arm upward as far as you comfortably can. Repeat from the beginning and perform 10 to 20 times a day.
  • Cross-body reach: Use your good arm to lift your affected arm at the elbow, and bring it up and across your body so you can hold a stretch in the whole arm for 15 to 20 seconds. Do this 10 to 20 times per day, working on reaching further across your body as mobility increases.
  • Armpit stretch: Place the affected arm onto a shelf about breast-high (a counter top is a good place to practice). Slightly bend and straighten your knees to open up the armpit, coming into a squat and bending a bit deeper each time, up to 20 times daily.
  • Outward and inward rotation: These strengthening and rotation exercises use added resistance and should be done once mobility is improving and pain is decreasing. Make sure you warm up and stretch the affected shoulder first. For outward rotation and strength, hold a rubber exercise band between your hands and rotate the lower part of the affected arm outward 15 to 20 times. For inward rotation, hook one end of a rubber exercise band around a doorknob and pull the band toward your body 15 to 20 times daily.

3. Physical Therapy

While these exercises described above are simple enough to perform at home, if pain continues and makes it hard to move around or work normally, see a physical therapist who can assign specific exercises and stretches to improve your range of motion, strength and flexibility. For some people, 4 to 12 weeks of physical therapy is necessary to overcome frozen surgery, at which point range of motion usually returns to normal.

4. Numbing Pain Naturally

As you’ve probably gathered by now, continuing to move your frozen shoulder gradually is the key to treating the condition. However, this can cause some pain and discomfort. Rather than relying on drugs, you can help control pain naturally with holistic homemade treatments for frozen shoulder such as essential oils and other muscle relaxers.

Try using peppermint oil on your affected shoulder to boost circulation, reduce inflammation and reduce pain. Massage therapy, physical therapy, magnesium cream and acupuncture might also help control swelling and improve range of motion.

5. Lowering Inflammation & Preventing Complications

To help control inflammation long-term and prevent injuries from reoccurring, focus on eating a healing diet and taking anti-inflammatory supplements that aid in improving recovery. Anti-inflammatory supplements and herbs include: turmeric, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium and CoQ10.

Foods that help fight inflammation include all sorts of fresh veggies and fruit, probiotic-rich foods (yogurt, kombucha, kefir and cultured veggies), grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs and healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut and olive oil. Try to also limit other factors that contribute to inflammation, such as high levels of mental stress, being overweight or obese, sitting for long periods, cigarette smoking, chemical or toxin exposure, and high amounts of exposure to vibration from vehicles (for example, being a truck driver for a living).