Frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, is characterized by a gradual loss of mobility and worsening shoulder pain. It can take years to run its course, and some believe they can get the relief they need by getting a massage.
But does it work?
It’s true, massages can feel great. But with frozen shoulder, a massage simply helps relieve tension and promote relaxation, benefits associated with improved circulation and reduced inflammation. The benefits of massage on its own are limited and temporary.
While getting a massage often relieves some pain and can temporarily forestall losses in range of motion, it does not cure frozen shoulder.
Frozen shoulder symptoms will quickly return unless properly treated by a specialist.
Frozen Shoulder Stages & Massage Therapy Goals
Frozen shoulder syndrome has three stages: freezing, frozen and thawing. Each stage can last anywhere from weeks to years and has distinct symptoms.
If you decide to pursue massage therapy for your frozen shoulder, remember that, despite what you might hear from a massage therapist, it will not resolve your condition. It will only provide temporary relief from the symptoms you experience in the affected arm.
During the freezing stage, which can last anywhere from two to nine months, range of motion restrictions are usually minor, but the shoulder pain and stiffness in the affected arm gradually worsens over time.
At this point, frozen shoulder massage can alleviate some shoulder pain and slow, or sometimes prevent, further decrease in your shoulder’s range of motion.
This stage usually lasts for four to six months, but it can take up to a year.
When the shoulder is frozen, there is a loss in both the active and passive ranges of motion, which means that shoulder mobility cannot be achieved even when a physical therapist tries to move the affected arm. This is usually due to the adhesions in the shoulder that prevent proper shoulder mechanics
Massage and general shoulder joint capsule mobilizations during the frozen stage can relieve pain and help forestall atrophy in the shoulder muscles of the affected arm, but they will not bring about the end of this stage any faster.
The thawing phase usually lasts at least six months but can take as long as two years.
The shoulder capsule will slowly loosen and range of motion will begin to improve during the final stage. But the shoulder may never return to normal without the proper treatment.
Targeted frozen shoulder massage during the thawing phase can make shoulder stretches and exercises easier, which speeds up patient recovery, but without the proper intervention there is no guarantee that the affected shoulder will return to normal.
Frozen Shoulder Massage
Particularly in the early stage of the condition, adhesive capsulitis presents in a very similar fashion to a variety of other shoulder problems, which is why so many people opt for massage therapy and other traditional treatments before consulting a frozen shoulder specialist.
The pain and reduced range of motion from frozen shoulder closely resembles shoulder issues like rotator cuff tendinitis, bursitis and shoulder impingement syndrome. Also, shoulder injuries, like a rotator cuff tear or a SLAP (Superior Labral from Anterior to Posterior) tear, can lead to similar pain and stiffness as frozen shoulder.
An experienced massage therapist will be able to successfully treat the symptoms associated with rotator cuff issues and other shoulder injuries, but it is not the kind of treatment that will successfully cure frozen shoulder / adhesive capsulitis.
Here is what you can expect from the following massage therapy techniques:
Active Release Therapy
Sometimes called Active Release Techniques, this approach to massage works to correct soft tissue restrictions caused by scar tissue and adhesions to resolve pain and range of motion restrictions. A therapist who practices this type of therapy will use a combination of massage, movements and stretches to release muscular tension.
This general technique can be applied to many conditions that cause pain in muscles, tendons and ligaments, but it lacks the specific focus needed to treat a stubborn condition like frozen shoulder / adhesive capsulitis.
It is believed that Swedish massage can increase oxygen levels in the blood, which promotes circulation and can speed injury recovery.
Because it uses long, kneading strokes and light pressure, Swedish massage can be quite relaxing and energizing, which is why it is so popular. But there is no anecdotal or clinical evidence to suggest that Swedish massage is an effective treatment for frozen shoulder.
Deep Tissue Massage
This approach to massage is often used to treat sports injuries and to help athletes recover from intense training sessions. It uses heavy, sustained pressure and slow strokes to reach deep into muscles and connective tissues to break up scar tissue and reduce tension.
But because this approach focuses on reducing tension within the muscles it is not an effective treatment for the adhesions that form within the shoulder joint capsule, so it will not resolve frozen shoulder.
Trigger Point Therapy
This type of massage is used to manage muscular pain. Trigger points are painful spots found in muscle tissue that result from acute trauma or repetitive microtrauma. Identifying and breaking up these trigger points is an effective pain management approach for many conditions, but it lacks the specificity of a frozen shoulder treatment.
People who suffer from frozen shoulder can find some relief using trigger point therapy, however, it will not cure adhesive capsulitis.
Performing Frozen Shoulder Massage on Yourself
The persistent pain and shoulder joint stiffness associated with frozen shoulder often leads people to seek out remedies and treatments they can perform at home. Although self-massage will not resolve frozen shoulder, it can provide some short-term pain relief.
Here is how you can perform a frozen shoulder massage on yourself, using only a foam roller, to help manage your shoulder pain:
- Place a foam roller in the armpit of the affected arm
- Using a table or countertop for support, gently lean your weight on to the foam roller
- Extend your arm and slowly start to roll back and forth
- As your shoulder tension begins to release, put more weight on to the roller and try to rotate your upper arm back and forth as you roll
If this approach is too painful or difficult, vibrating electric massagers can also be used to treat trigger points and relieve shoulder pain.
As with any home treatment, always respect your body’s limits and consult with your primary health care practitioner before starting.
Categorised in: Blog - World Frozen Shoulder Clinic