Written By: Chloe Wilson BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy
Reviewed By: SPE Medical Review Board
Frozen shoulder exercises aim to improve the range of motion at the shoulder joint, decrease pain and improve function.
A frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, is a condition where thickening and inflammation of the shoulder joint capsule causes stiffness and pain.
There are three different stages with the condition and in each, different frozen shoulder exercises can be performed to help.
Here we will look at the best frozen shoulder exercises, how to do them effectively as well as how to progress the exercises through the different stages. If you want to know more about the causes and symptoms of adhesive capsulitis, visit the frozen shoulder overview.
All of these exercises are also suitable if you are recovering from frozen shoulder surgery.
Frozen shoulder exercises are looking to restore the movement that is lost with adhesive capsulitis. A frozen shoulder goes through three different phases:
Different frozen shoulder exercises will work best in the different phases of adhesive capsulitis so we have grouped them into three categories
Pendulum frozen shoulder exercises help to keep the shoulder joint moving in all directions and are most appropriate in stage 1 of adhesive capsulitis. They use gravity to move the shoulder rather than your muscles, so are very gentle and shouldn’t cause pain.
These phase 1 frozen shoulder exercises should not be painful. Keep your arm relaxed throughout, don’t push in to pain.
Assisted frozen shoulder exercises aim to both maintain and increase shoulder movement as you progress through the different phases of adhesive capsulitis.
With these exercises the movement is led by the good arm, a stick or towel which support the weight of the affected arm allowing it stay relaxed so it can move through a greater range.
These assisted frozen shoulder exercises are suitable for phases 1, 2 and 3, with slight adaptions at each phase:
Top Tips: 1. Don’t let your back arch as your arm lifts and keep your rib cage down. Otherwise the majority of the movement comes from your upper back rather than your shoulder
2. Start with your elbow bent rather than straight as having a shorter lever can make the movement easier
3. As your movement improves, you may find it easier to support your affected arm under the elbow rather than at the wrist – you can often get more movement that way
4. As your arm comes up, keep the elbow bent and let your affected hand rest on your head and slide backwards as you gently lift the arm higher. It helps to support the weight of the arm and makes it easier to relax. This works particularly well if you are doing the exercise lying down
Top Tips: 1. Keep the elbow of your affected arm by your side throughout the movement to ensure pure rotation
2. If the wrist of your affected arm moves awkwardly with this exercise (it can end up in a strange position to compensate for stiffness in the shoulder), place the palm of your hand (affected side) vertically (thumb up) on the end of the stick rather than horizontally over the top of the stick
3. Don’t let your body twist round as you do this, you want to isolate the movement to your shoulder
Progression: You can progress the exercise by using a towel to move the affected arm. Hold a towel in your good hand and drape it over your shoulder so it hangs down your back. Grab the bottom of the towel with your affected arm. Slowly pull the towel up with your good arm so your affected arm glides up your back
Top Tip: Keep your shoulder blades drawn back and your body upright through the movement – avoid the temptation to slouch forwards as while it may feel like you get more movement that way, it is actually coming from your upper back rather than your shoulder
Once pain levels have reduced and the primary problem is stiffness, you can start doing the following stretches. If you have had frozen shoulder surgery, you can start them immediately.
These frozen shoulder exercises help to improve shoulder movement in all directions by stretching out the joint capsule and surrounding soft tissues and are suitable for stages 2 & 3.
There may be some discomfort as you perform these frozen shoulder exercises but the discomfort should settle quickly when you stop the exercises. If you are still noticing discomfort after 30 minutes, that is a sign you have pushed things too much. Next time, reduce the range of movement or the number of repetitions.
Top Tip: Start by having your hands on the side of your head e.g. over your ears, and progress to having them behind your head to increase the stretch further
Progressions: 1. Start with your knees further away from your hands
2. Hold the stretch for longer
3. Whilst holding the stretch, shift your hips to the side to increase the stretch under your shoulder – alternate sides
Top Tip: you don’t need to walk your fingers all the way down to the starting position each time, just bring them down far enough to ease off the stretch
Progression: As you hold the stretch, shift your hips to one side. Hold and then repeat to the other side
Top Tips: 1. The further back you step, the more you will stretch your shoulder. You are aiming to get your arms (and upper body) parallel to the floor
2. If you find it hard to do this exercise standing up, sit on a wheeled chair or stool instead. Keep your hands still on the table and let the chair gradually roll backwards
Frozen shoulder exercises are looking to restore the movement that is lost with adhesive capsulitis. The movements that tend to be most affected are:
This is known as a capsular pattern of limitation with lateral rotation being most limited, then flexion, then medial rotation. Frozen shoulder exercises will look to target each of these movements. Flexion is often the first movement to return, medial and lateral rotation are usually the last.
If you are having physical therapy for frozen shoulder, you will probably recognize some of these exercises! Remember, if you are stage 1, you do not want to be pushing in to any pain with frozen shoulder exercises.
As you progress through stages 2 and 3, the pain levels will subside and you will find that the main limitation to these exercises is stiffness, not pain. Stick with them, aiming to do one to three sessions of frozen shoulder exercises each day.
If you are recovering from frozen shoulder surgery, remember that doing these exercises regularly (3-4 times a day) is really important to ensure you make the best recovery.
These frozen shoulder exercises should help you to regain the movement in your shoulder, but remember, it is a slow process. It can take many months to recover from adhesive capsulitis so stick with it.
There are a number of other things that can help alongside frozen shoulder exercises - visit the frozen shoulder treatment section to find out more.
If your symptoms fail to settle after a few months of doing these exercises regularly, your doctor may advise you to have surgery - visit the frozen shoulder surgery section to find out more.
Page Last Updated: 02/02/2022
Next Review Due: 02/02/2022
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