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Frozen Shoulder Stretches that Thaw

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT November 24, 2020 0 Comments

A frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis, can severely limit your normal daily function and range of motion. It can leave you with persistent shoulder pain or have you avoiding certain movements during daily activities. Try these frozen shoulder stretches to loosen tissues in the affected shoulder and relieve pain.

Mobility Stretches for Range of Motion

The strong tissues that surround the shoulder joint to give stability (including ligaments, tendons of the rotator cuff, and capsular tissue) are known as the shoulder joint capsule; which becomes very inflexible and dense with adhesive capsulitis. Stretches that specifically address the joint capsule are called joint mobility exercises. Check out the stretching exercises above from physical therapist, Dr. Michael White.

Use Stretches in Conjunction with These Other Treatment Options

1. Inferior Shoulder Stretch

The inferior shoulder capsule often has the most adhesions and stiffness so this exercise should feel great. Sit in a chair on the edge opposite of the arm you wish to stretch. Then, grab the bottom of the chair with your hand. Keep the upper body, particularly the neck, as relaxed as possible as you lean sideways away from your hand. Keep the spine straight and posture good. You should feel a gentle stretch deep into the shoulder joint.

Move in and out of the stretching position slowly for up to 20 repetitions. It should not be painful.

2. Inferior-Posterior Shoulder Stretch

Sit in a chair with your butt scooted toward the front edge. Then, reach back with the hand of the arm you want to stretch and grab your chair right at the corner (where the bottom and the back meet). Next, keep the entire upper body relaxed and in good posture as you lean forward at a diagonal over the thigh opposite of your arm.

Move in and out of the stretch slowly for up to 20 repetitions. Stop or modify if you experience pain. 

3. Pendulum Exercises

Stand near the back of a chair for this one. If you have a light weight or a soup can it can help deepen the stretch. Hold it in your hand and stagger your feet as you lean over the top of the chair with the support of your uninjured arm. Get your spine parallel to the ground if possible with your arm dangling down toward the floor. Then, simply move your entire body (not just your shoulder) so that your affected arm “swings” where you want it to stretch.

Move your body in circles, forwards and backwards, and side to side to loosen the entire shoulder. Keep your shoulder muscles as relaxed as possible throughout. Complete for one to two minutes in as many directions as you feel comfortable doing.

4. Shoulder Flexion with a Cane

Grab a walking cane or broomstick for this one. Hold it in your hands about shoulder width apart. If you have a cane, hold the handle with your affected arm so that the thumb is pointing up toward the ceiling. The cane will be moved primarily by your good arm, while the affected arm is guided by the cane for more range of motion without muscle activation.

Start with flexion; simply lift both arms up in front of you toward the ceiling as high as you can comfortably go before returning to the starting position.

Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for up to 3 sets. If too painful, try doing it lying on your back first. You can also try other movements with the guidance of your good arm from the cane; such as abduction and external rotation.

5. Shoulder Pulley

A shoulder pulley is an excellent tool often found in the physical therapist office. This simple yet effective tool allows you to guide your frozen shoulder with your good arm for pain free passive movements; which help restore good shoulder biomechanics. Follow this video and keep good posture.

The shoulder pulley exercise can be repeated 10-20 times in each position recommended.

Yoga Poses to Stretch the Shoulder

Yoga poses are a great way to promote flexibility and relaxation. Focus on deep breathing and relaxation with each pose.

6. Internal Rotation Towel Stretch

Grab a towel or stretch strap for this one. Hold the strap in one arm and bring the strap over your shoulder to behind your back. Reach for the bottom of the strap (or towel) with your injured arm by internally rotating the shoulder with the back of the hand touching the top of your butt. Use your upper hand to guide the lower hand up the back as high as possible.

Hold the stretch for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets. Make sure to keep it relatively pain free and focus on the best possible posture.

7. Child’s Pose with Arms Out in Front

Get on your hands and knees with your knees directly under the hips and hands under the shoulders to start. Shift your weight backwards as you bring your butt towards your heels and chest toward the floor. Keep your hands where they are if you feel enough of a stretch, otherwise scoot your palms forward until you feel the stretch in your shoulders.

Hold for 30+ seconds for 3-4 sets. Increase your reach as tolerated.

8. Supine Chest Stretch

Lie on your back with the feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Place your upper arms on the ground at a 90 degree angle (abduction) to create a “t.” With your elbows bent to 90 degrees, hands up toward the ceiling, and the palms facing down toward your feet, let the backs of the hands fall back toward the floor. Continue until a strong stretch is felt in the shoulder or chest. Do not let the shoulders rise off the floor or low back arch while stretching.

Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets.

Move Onto These Exercises Once Warmed Up

Physical Therapy for Adhesive Capsulitis

Attention from a physical therapist can help you find pain relief, effectively adjust your daily activities, and maximize your recovery to prevent other injuries. If you decide to start physical therapy for a frozen shoulder, here’s what you can expect:

  • Initial assessment to determine:
  • Weaknesses
  • Discoordination
  • Flexibility and mobility issues
  • Secondary issues contributing to your shoulder pain such as lifestyle choices, previous injuries, core strength, and more
  • Pain beliefs and movement avoidance
    • Pain relief management tools for home
  • Ice
  • Heat
  • TENs
  • Massage
    • Expert guidance for shoulder mobility and range of motion restoration
    • Physical therapy exercises for a home exercise program

    Frozen Shoulder Exercises

    Benefits of Shoulder Stretching Exercises

    The benefits of stretching a frozen shoulder include:

    • Reducing shoulder pain, stiffness and inflammation
    • Increased tolerance for joint range of motion
    • Potentially shorten the length of time your shoulder is “frozen”
    • Improve tolerance for shoulder exercise and daily activities 
    • Boosted overall quality of life

    Thawing Your Frozen Shoulder

    Frozen shoulder syndrome can literally leave you feeling stuck. When you can’t perform your normal daily activities due to pain and stiffness, it can leave a serious damper on your quality of life. These stretches can help the thawing process and navigate your recovery. If you are struggling, notice a change in symptoms, or aren’t sure where to start; consult an orthopedic doctor or physical therapist immediately.

    Frozen Shoulder Products

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    Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
    Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

    JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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