Idiopathic adhesive capsulitis. A prospective functional outcome study of nonoperative treatment

J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2000 Oct;82(10):1398-407.


Background: Idiopathic adhesive capsulitis is a commonly recognized but poorly understood cause of a painful and stiff shoulder. Although most orthopaedic literature supports treatment with physical therapy and stretching exercises, some studies have demonstrated late pain and functional deficits. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the outcome of patients with idiopathic adhesive capsulitis who were treated with a stretching-exercise program.

Methods: Seventy-five consecutive patients (seventy-seven shoulders) with phase-II idiopathic adhesive capsulitis were treated with use of a specific four-direction shoulder-stretching exercise program and evaluated prospectively. The initial evaluation included the recording of a detailed medical and orthopaedic history and assessment of pain, range of motion, and function. The outcome evaluation included assessment of pain, range of motion, and function; completion of the Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder, and Hand (DASH) Questionnaire; and completion of the Short Form-36 (SF-36) Health Survey. The mean duration of follow-up was twenty-two months (range, twelve to forty-one months). One patient died prior to the final evaluation, and three patients were lost to follow-up.

Results: Sixty-four (90 percent) of the patients reported a satisfactory outcome. Seven (10 percent) were not satisfied with the outcome, and five (7 percent) underwent manipulation and/or arthroscopic capsular release. The outcomes of the patients who did not have manipulation or capsular release were evaluated. There were significant improvements in the scores for pain at rest (from a mean of 1.57 points before treatment to a mean of 1.16 points at the final evaluation; p < 0.001) and pain with activity (from a mean of 4.12 points before treatment to a mean of 1.33 points at the final evaluation; p < 0.0001). On the average, active forward elevation increased 43 degrees, active external rotation increased 25 degrees, passive internal rotation increased eight vertebral levels, and the glenohumeral rotation arc at 90 degrees of abduction increased 72 degrees (p < 0.00001). The number of "yes" responses to the Simple Shoulder Test increased from a mean of 4.1 (of a possible twelve) to a mean of 10.75 (p < 0.00001). Despite the significant improvements and the high rate of patient satisfaction, there were still significant differences in the pain and motion of the affected shoulder when compared with those of the unaffected, contralateral shoulder (p < 0.00001). At the final outcome evaluation, the DASH scores demonstrated limitations when compared with known population norms, whereas the profiles of the SF-36 were comparable with those of age and gender-matched control populations. Prior treatment with physical therapy and a Workers' Compensation claim or pending litigation were the only variables that were associated with the eventual need for manipulation or capsular release. Male gender and diabetes mellitus were associated with worse motion at the final evaluation. Patients with a greater severity of pain with activity at the initial evaluation had significantly lower DASH scores at the final evaluation, and patients with lower initial scores on the Simple Shoulder Test had comparatively lower scores on the Simple Shoulder Test at the outcome evaluation.

Conclusions: The vast majority of patients who have phase-II idiopathic adhesive capsulitis can be successfully treated with a specific four-direction shoulder-stretching exercise program. Although measurable limitations and deficiencies were noted at the outcome evaluation, these appeared to be acceptable to most of the patients and did not affect their general health status. Patients with more severe pain and functional limitations before treatment had relatively worse outcomes. More aggressive treatment such as manipulation or capsular release was rarely necessary, and the efficacy of early use of these treatments should be further studied.

MeSH terms

  • Bursitis / physiopathology
  • Bursitis / rehabilitation*
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Exercise Therapy*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Measurement
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Prospective Studies
  • Range of Motion, Articular
  • Shoulder Joint* / physiopathology
  • Shoulder Pain / diagnosis
  • Time Factors
  • Treatment Outcome