What The Heck Is 'Frozen Shoulder'?

I wish I had a cool story about how I hurt my shoulder, like surfing in Hawaii or skiing a challenging and picturesque mountain slope. But I don’t even know how to surf or ski. I actually don’t even know what DID happen — the orthopedist I eventually saw said the cause was “idiopathic,” aka unknown. Maybe I hurt myself walking my dog (he’s only 38 lbs. but he can really pull on a leash) or just going about my everyday life, carrying bags of groceries and putting away dishes and other glamorous activities. But if you are reading this, over 40 and vague details on how you hurt your shoulder sound a little too familiar, you should see a doctor. Because apparently this happens so often to people my age there’s a name for it: frozen shoulder.

It started with feeling some twinges in my left shoulder, and then it got worse, to the point where if I made a sudden movement, I’d feel shooting pains in my shoulder that caused me to stop whatever I was doing and scream in agony (alarming my family, my friends, and the general public on more than one occasion). Then I lost the ability to move my arm higher than my shoulder. I couldn’t sleep at night, because I couldn’t get comfortable, and if I finally fell asleep, sometimes I’d roll over in my sleep and wake myself up because I’d moved too quickly, sending a jolt of excruciating pain through my shoulder.

It turned out that I had adhesive capsulitis, also known as “frozen shoulder.” The tissue surrounding the joint in the shoulder tightens up to the point where it’s essentially “frozen” in place. My doctor likened it to a ball of rubber bands where the bands have become so tightly wound together that they can’t easily be loosened up. And, yes, it’s one more fun consequence of middle age.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), frozen shoulder is most common in people between the ages of 40 and 60. The NIH helpfully adds, “Frozen shoulder can be very distressing and make many different activities more difficult. It can become a real challenge or even impossible to get dressed, cook, clean, reach a back pocket or shift gears while driving.” No kidding, NIH! Much of the literature about frozen shoulder calls it a “painful condition” — which is very true. I gave birth to an almost 10-pound baby and have suffered from chronic back pain and digestive pain for years, but my frozen shoulder was some of the most intense pain I’ve experienced.

Until I suffered a frozen shoulder myself, my main familiarity with the term came from an episode of the TV show Younger. The main character, Liza, wakes up one day unable to move her arm and a doctor subsequently diagnoses her with a frozen shoulder. Or, as he calls it, “40-year-old shoulder” and goes on to tell her it’s just something that happens to people as they age. He also says it should work itself out in a week or so. If only!

Folks, frozen shoulder can take months — sometimes years — to fully heal. In my case, I had to do physical therapy multiple times a week for nearly six months, plus get a cortisone shot in my shoulder (let me put in my standard disclaimer here that I am the furthest thing possible from a doctor and no one should ever take any actual medical advice from me).

After all those months of physical therapy (plus doing exercises on my own at home), my left shoulder finally felt better. Also, they often played ‘80s pop music at the physical therapy office and I would amuse all the PTs there with my knowledge of all the words to every song. (I was aghast when my very young physical therapist claimed she’d never heard of Prince.) My physical therapist was great, even if when she stretched me, it was sometimes so painful it made me cry (sorry to everyone I scared in the PT office!).

Maybe I don’t have 100% of the range of motion I’d had before in my left shoulder, but I’m back to about 90%, and that’s pretty great. I’ve been doing Pilates every week to strengthen my body overall and keep things flexible.

Sounds like a happy ending, right?

But then…

I started to feel a familiar twinge. This time, it was in my right shoulder. The first time it happened, I waved it off (as best I could with my wonky shoulder). But then it happened a few more times.

Noooooooooooooooooo! Could my right shoulder now be developing adhesive capsulitis?

Getting old can truly suck.

So please, say a prayer, send good vibes, hook me up with free turmeric supplements… whatever can be done to help me ward off another frozen shoulder. Because as much as I enjoyed the journey back to the ‘80s during my biweekly visits to physical therapy, I don’t want to spend that much time (or money, those co-pays really added up) at PT again.

I just want to give frozen shoulder the cold shoulder.

Janine Annett is the author of the humor book I Am “Why Do I Need Venmo?” Years Old. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Real Simple, Parents, and many other places. She lives in New York with her husband, son, and dog.

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