Frozen Shoulder - My Story
Joint pain, stiffness, aches and swelling are common midlife complaints. As we age, we may feel the signs of osteoarthritis or we may find that our joints need more time to heal from unusual or repetitive stress.
I have been experiencing pain in my left shoulder since last spring. At first, I thought it was the result of extreme gardening or that I over did it during one of my strength workouts. So, I eased off on the heavy work and engaged in more yoga and pilates.
Unfortunately, the pain only increased with time and eventually my day-to-day activities became extremely difficult. The pain at night was nothing like I have ever experienced and sleeping comfortably - or at all - was terribly difficult. I really could only sleep in small increments of time and would have to rise to walk off the pain.
After shedding tears at an appointment with my family doctor in September, I was referred to a specialist. In January, an ultrasound, x-ray and examination by a sports medicine doctor confirmed that I have adhesive capsulitis - popularly known as frozen shoulder.
It is estimated that 2 to 5% of the population are affected by frozen shoulder at some point.
To reach a diagnosis of this condition, a few tests are required to rule out arthritis or a serious injury. In other words, doctors must find no real reason for the chronic pain and stiffness. As soon as I received my frozen shoulder diagnosis, my sports medicine doctor prescribed naproxen, an anti-inflammatory medication for pain during the day and cyclobenzaprine, a muscle relaxer, to help with sleep.
My doctor also advised me on a cortisone shot to help decrease my body’s immune response and reduce the inflammation. After a great deal of discussion and thought, I went through with this shot even though I was told that it may or may not help - each body is different. My thought was I could not focus properly on healing when living in so much pain, so I went for it. I had nothing to lose. It’s now been over a week and I have noticed decreased pain and some improvement in my range of motion. This will allow my therapies to work more effectively and, hopefully, increase my chances for a speedy recovery.
What is frozen shoulder?
Frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis, is an inflammatory condition characterized by the gradual and extremely painful stiffening of the shoulder joint. This condition typically develops slowly and in three stages, with each stage lasting several months. At stage two, the frozen stage, I found that I could no longer raise my left arm to do basic grooming. And getting dressed was nearly impossible. I could not put on a bra or button up pants. I lived in my husband’s big sweatshirts and my pj pants.
I was surprised to learn from my healthcare team that the exact cause of this inflammatory condition is unknown. It’s considered a “medical mystery” - severe pain coming from nowhere and lasting for years.
Since many women in midlife are affected by this condition, there is some discussion that the lack of estrogen at menopause plays a role. It seems logical since estrogen acts to protect joints and helps reduce inflammation throughout the body. However, there is no clear evidence of the connection between menopause and frozen shoulder at this time.
Research is clear, though, on the risk factors for frozen shoulder. It is most likely to occur in:
adults between the ages of 40 and 65 and mostly in women;
in people with diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, a thyroid condition or heart and lung disease; and
those with immobility or reduced immobility due to a fracture, stroke, mastectomy, or rotator cuff injury
The only risk factors I had were my age and sex.
At this time, there is no cure for frozen shoulder. It is treated with anti-inflammatory medications and a cortisone shot to help reduce the inflammation. Eventually frozen shoulder resolves with time - usually anywhere between 18 months and 3 or 4 years.
There are some natural solutions to help speed recovery and eventually regain full motion of the shoulder joint. Here are 4 therapies I have introduced to my own recovery plan:
Gentle stretching exercises help break up adhesions, the abnormal bands of tissue growing between the joint surfaces. During my physiotherapy treatments, my arm is stretched just to the point of pain and then held for a bit till my shoulder relaxes. My physiotherapist also has me working on wall walks and pendulum exercises at home.
My osteopathic treatments involve the manipulation of pressure points as well as some soft tissue massage and gentle stretching of my neck, chest, jaw and shoulder. I find these treatments so relaxing that they are usually followed with a much-needed extended long nap at home.
I am usually a big baby when it comes to needles, but this therapy is so well known for its treatment of painful conditions - I had to give it a try. If you’re not familiar with acupuncture, it is the insertion of fine and sterile needles into particular trigger points along the body to promote healthy circulation and healing.
My acupuncturist also uses heat therapy and cupping to help relax my shoulder’s fascia and surrounding muscles. Though the treatment itself is relaxing, I admit that my first couple of sessions were followed by a day of bad pain and then 2 to 3 days of beautiful relief. At my last session, I received moxibustion, the burning of the herb moxa (Chinese mugwort) and it left me feeling uplifted and energized for the first time in a long time.
CBD, a natural extract from cannabis, has helped many people with a variety of ailments. After a call to Spectrum Therapeutics, I promptly received a consultation with a medical doctor who prescribed me some CBD oil. This has helped soften my pain during the day and has allowed me to relax in the evening in preparation for sleep.
In addition to my healthy plant-based diet, supplement regime, daily turmeric, ginger and green teas and light stretching exercises, my plant is to continue with these treatments for as long as it takes.
The Mind-Body Connection
As a holistic nutritionist, I understand that health issues are not just physical. Going forward with my recovery plan, I will take time to examine the emotional component of my frozen shoulder pain. What burden am I carrying on my shoulders? What painful emotion am I not allowing myself to feel? Is it anger, sadness, fear, hurt or guilt?
"Because our bodies are made of energy, pinpointing the origin of your pain, and exploring your mental, emotional and energetic patterns may provide important steps toward healing from a frozen shoulder." (Christiane Northrup, MD)
A good friend of mine recently introduced me to Tara Brach, PhD and her guided meditations. Dr. Brach uses the tool RAIN, an acronym for practicing mindfulness and compassion (Recognize what is happening, Allow the experience be there just as it is, Investigate with interest and care, and Nurture with self-compassion). It is important now that I set some quality time aside for mindfulness and to further explore the message my body is sending me.
If you are experiencing shoulder pain, don’t readily assume it’s just an injury or the onset of arthritis. Please see your healthcare practitioner. The best time to get treatment is during the first stage (the “freezing” stage). Frozen shoulder is a progressive condition so the sooner the diagnosis, the sooner therapy can begin which should increase your chances for a better outcome. Frozen shoulder is not only painful, but it can leave you in very low spirits. Focus on anti-inflammatory nutrition, and take time for some self-love and rest. Be patient. From what I have learned, it’s a journey and there are no quick fixes.
If you have ever experienced frozen shoulder, I’d love to hear your story. xo
The puzzling pathophysiology of frozen shoulders - a scoping review
Acupuncture for frozen shoulder
Adhesive Capsulitis/Frozen Shoulder: Information for Patients
Frozen Shoulder: Symptoms and Causes