Natural history of frozen shoulder: fact or fiction? A systematic review

Physiotherapy. 2017 Mar;103(1):40-47. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2016 Jun 21.


Background: In 1940s, it was proposed that frozen shoulder progresses through a self-limiting natural history of painful, stiff and recovery phases, leading to full recovery without treatment. However, clinical evidence of persistent limitations lasting for years contradicts this assumption.

Objectives: To assess evidence for the natural history theory of frozen shoulder by examining: (1) progression through recovery phases, and (2) full resolution without treatment.

Data sources: MEDLINE, PubMed, EBSCO CINAHL and PEDro database searches augmented by hand searching.

Study selection: Cohort or randomised controlled trials with no-treatment comparison groups including adults with frozen shoulder who received no treatment and reporting range of motion, pain or function for ≥6 months.

Data extraction: Reviewers assessed study eligibility and quality, and extracted data before reaching consensus. Limited early range-of-motion improvements and greater late improvements defined progression through recovery phases. Restoration of normal range of motion and previous function defined full resolution.

Results: Of 508 citations, 13 articles were reviewed and seven were included in this review. Low-quality evidence suggested that no treatment yielded some, but not complete, improvement in range of motion after 1 to 4 years of follow-up. No evidence supported the theory of progression through recovery phases to full resolution without treatment. On the contrary, moderate-quality evidence from three randomised controlled trials with longitudinal data demonstrated that most improvement occurred early, not late.

Limitations: Low-quality evidence revealed the weakness of longstanding assumptions about frozen shoulder.

Conclusion: Contradictory evidence and a lack of supporting evidence shows that the theory of recovery phases leading to complete resolution without treatment for frozen shoulder is unfounded.

Keywords: Adhesive capsulitis; Outcome; Prognosis; Range of motion; Recovery phase.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Bursitis / physiopathology*
  • Bursitis / rehabilitation*
  • Humans
  • Physical Therapy Modalities*
  • Range of Motion, Articular
  • Recovery of Function
  • Shoulder Pain / physiopathology
  • Shoulder Pain / rehabilitation
  • Time Factors