Frozen Shoulder vs Impingement

Georgia Hand, Shoulder, and Elbow

Our shoulders are incredible! They manage to keep functioning despite everyday wear and tear. However, sometimes they need some assistance to keep functioning properly. Over time, we may feel pain or stiffness that gradually increases, but we don’t really pay attention to it. At other times, though, the pain is so severe that it literally stops us in our tracks.
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This shoulder pain can be felt for various reasons, including frozen shoulder or shoulder impingement. However, it can be challenging to know what is causing your specific shoulder pain or limiting your range of motion without an examination. 

Contact our orthopedic doctors at Georgia Hand, Shoulder & Elbow in Atlanta and Marietta, GA today to get the clarity you need. Since there is often confusion between shoulder impingement and frozen shoulder, we have provided a detailed explanation to assist you.

Is Shoulder Impingement the Same as Frozen Shoulder?

Although shoulder impingement and frozen shoulder have similar symptoms, they are different. Shoulder impingement is caused by a swollen, thickened, or torn rotator cuff tendon that rubs against or catches in the acromion, which is located at the top edge of your shoulder blade. 

Shoulder impingement is very common, and pain increases with movement. Usually, shoulder impingement does not cause stiffness; however, the pain can come on suddenly or gradually.

Unlike shoulder impingement, the cause of frozen shoulder (also known as adhesive capsulitis) is unknown. Frozen shoulder is a condition where the synovial membrane becomes swollen, thickens, and contracts, causing scar tissue to form. 

This results in stiffness, minimizing and restricting your ability to turn your arm out due to a lack of space for your upper arm to move around. It can be very painful, even when motionless, and happens unexpectedly.

How Do I Know If I Have Frozen Shoulder or Shoulder Impingement?

It can be difficult to differentiate between a frozen shoulder or a shoulder impingement without the assistance of a specialist. Knowing the symptoms can help you decipher between the two. While the symptoms are listed below, it is most beneficial to see a specialist for a proper diagnosis.   

You may have frozen shoulder if you experience:

  • Unexpected shoulder pain, even when no injury is noticed
  • Stiffness/limited arm movement
  • Pain that tends to worsen at night
  • Difficulty lifting your arm above your head and extending your arms across your body or behind your back

 

You may have shoulder impingement if you experience:

  • Pain that tends to worsen with movement, especially when you lift your arm above your head
  • Difficulties reaching behind your back
  • Muscle weakness
  • Difficulty sleeping at night due to pain

 

How Is Shoulder Impingement Diagnosed?

To properly diagnose shoulder impingement, your physician will review your medical history and symptoms. A full assessment of your mobility and an examination of what movements increase your pain level will be made. 

An x-ray or MRI may be taken to provide additional clarity and rule out other shoulder injuries that have similar symptoms. However, shoulder impingement can lead to shoulder bursitis or rotator cuff tendonitis if left untreated.

How Is Frozen Shoulder Diagnosed?

Similar to diagnosing a shoulder impingement, your physician will need to review your medical history and symptoms to make a proper diagnosis of a frozen shoulder. Your range of motion will also be tested. 

Depending on the intensity level of stiffness that you are feeling, testing your range of motion may be difficult. An MRI is often needed to confirm the diagnosis by revealing clear imaging showing significant joint capsule thickening.

Shoulder Impingement and Frozen Shoulder Treatment

Thankfully, there are a few nonsurgical treatment options that have been effective in helping treat shoulder impingement and frozen shoulder. Our physicians strive to use these methods first to help your recover before recommending surgery. These nonsurgical treatments include:

  • Simple shoulder exercises
  • Physical therapy
  • Nonsteroid anti-inflammatories
  • Corticosteroid injections

 

If you are still not feeling any relief after all nonsurgical treatments have been exhausted, your orthopedic doctor may recommend shoulder arthroscopy. This procedure is designed to help relieve your pain and help restore your range of motion.

While shoulder injuries are not life-threatening, they can profoundly impact the quality of your life. If you are experiencing any symptoms of shoulder impingement or frozen shoulder, a consultation at Georgia Hand, Shoulder & Elbow can get you started on the road to recovery. 

Let our highly trained experts help you take that first step! Call us in Atlanta or Marietta, GA, or schedule an appointment online with us today!

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Harlan Starr, MD