Is there a link between frozen shoulders and unprocessed grief?

“Frozen shoulder” is a medical anomaly, an idiopathic occurrence. Idiopathic means a “spontaneous” condition with no known cause. Why would any human body “freeze” a joint like the shoulder, even if there is no tear or obvious physical injury to be found? 

My working theory on frozen shoulder, having worked with quite a few frozen shoulder clients in my private practice since 2008, is that this condition has more to do with the nervous system than anything purely physical. And under the umbrella of the nervous system, I’ve observed a pattern that made itself known when client after client opened up to me about their histories. 

The emotional or historical pattern I’ve seen accompanying frozen shoulder has to do with grief, or loss, and an instinctive drive to protect the heart from “too much” pain to bear. 

And, under the umbrella of “loss” or bearing pain, another pattern emerged: unexpressed or unprocessed grief. 

Many of these clients were/are extremely self aware. They’ve done the therapy and growth work necessary to make sense of their past and live in the present. And…there’s always been a palpable undercurrent of emotion disguising itself quite brilliantly as intellectual capacity, as strength, endurance and a persevering self-reliance. 

The clients of mine that recovered full range of motion in their shoulders also recovered and integrated their full range of E-motion. 

Sometimes, there can be an underlying nervous system pattern that’s still operating even though my client has explored their emotions and worked through them. 

Watch the video for my take on frozen shoulder, and if you are arriving to this blog post with a current frozen shoulder condition, then here’s what I recommend:

  1. Start with your nervous system, not your fascia. Identify any patterns of protecting your heart against pain, loss, grief, surrender…and if you discover there are still emotions needing to be felt and/or processed, then:
  2. Feel it to heal it. Seek help if you feel you need professional help from a well trained therapist, somatic life coach or someone who understands the body-mind connection. 
  3. Once you feel sure the emotions are moving through or already processed, then you can begin working with your fascia and nervous system pattern(s) simultaneously. 
  4. Be aware of nervous system reactivity while doing fascia release work. If your body rejects physical work by increasing your pain or decreasing range of motion after a session (whether by yourself or with a professional), then consider it could be a message from your nervous system that it’s not ready for freedom yet…there’s still healing work to be done first. 

Please keep in mind that I’m sharing this in the hopes it is helpful, and I in way think this is the only possible cause of frozen shoulder. I’m sharing the patterns I have seen in my private practice, and I am open to being wrong. 

I’d love to hear from you! Do you think this is a viable working theory? Do you or someone you know have frozen shoulder? If so, what are your thoughts on this theory and where are you at on the healing journey right now?

I look forward to reading your comments!

  • Becky says:

    My first frozen shoulder (right dominant) started at the beginning of the pandemic in March of 20 and that was 10 months after my husband died after a long illness. I was his caregiver. I also retired and lost two best friends during the same time period.
    The second frozen shoulder left non-dominant) started a year after the first one while I was in pt for it. My pt immediately dismissed me, and now, almost 3 years from when this started, my right one is pretty much healed and the left is improved but with lingering bicep pain. No surgeries or pain relievers, just mostly stretching. I prayed a lot and just lived through it.

  • Kim says:

    I had a fall on Christmas Eve 2021 landing on my left shoulder. I had previously hurt it in the 18 years but didn’t have any trouble with it. After a month I had been seeing a physiotherapist it began to get worse and my range of motion decreased and a pain in my shoulder grew in intensity.
    My brother was diagnosed with cancer in May 2020 and prior to Christmas 2021 he went completely deaf from new tumours in his eardrums. He put up a fight but lost his battle in early May this year. My shoulder pain got worse and had been affecting my sleep for 7 months. In July I got Covid and ended up with a different pain but my shoulder mobility increased once I was able to attend physio again. It was only last week I was asked if there was a connection between my shoulder and grief, I found this very interesting and sounds just exactly like what I am going through.

  • Wendy says:

    I think there is most definitely a link between a frozen shoulder and grief. Mine came on very suddenly (left side) in February 2021. No known cause identified until I paid privately to see a physiotherapist and she asked about my history, traumas, etc. At that point I’d being grieving two years, not talking to anyone and bottling things up inside me. She’d made the connection that my heavy grieving had taken its toll on my body which made perfect sense to me. A year down the line and my shoulder is almost back to normal but the grieving is still the same.

  • Karen says:

    I lost my father on April 23, 2021. The following day the military showed up at my door to inform me of the loss of my son. July 2021 I began noticing pain in my left shoulder that progressed over the months. By November, I was diagnosed with a frozen shoulder. I have been actively participating in therapy, physical therapy and also have had 2 steroid injections in the left shoulder. I am now having issues with the right shoulder but I am continuing to work on strengthening the right shoulder to prevent it from freezing.

  • Sharon Callaghan says:

    I have recently lost my sister and dad within days of each other. My neck and shoulder go from ok to complete spasticity so painful !! I dont know if this is connected !

  • Sarah says:

    So interesting. I am a fit, healthy, 47 year old who usually participates in yoga and running, spending lots of time outdoors, with no other medical conditions. Over the pandemic I have been in New Zealand, whilst my dear Dad was in the UK caring for my mother with Alzheimer’s disease. In July she was rushed into hospital and then lost her sitting balance and had to be transferred to a nursing home. My left shoulder started to get painful, when I moved it in certain ways, around this time. It’s now December and I’m in constant pain and have limited mobility. My dear Mum passed away just two days ago. Your theory certainly rings true for me.

    I have been carrying a lot of tension and sadness since the beginning of this year, wanting to travel to the UK, but not being able to. In September this year I decided to travel, knowing I’d not be able to return to NZ for some time – but wanting to be there for my Dad and see my Mum in her final months of life. I had to leave my amazing husband and three children (18, 15 and 11) in New Zealand – they have been so supportive and understanding, and we talk every day on video calls, but it’s heart wrenching. Next year I will work on all this emotion and trying to heal. Thank you, Sarah

  • Lynda Norton says:

    I lost my brother suddenly and within a week started to develop a pain in my shoulder and arm. I had to deal with my mother who suffers from dementia so had no time to grieve or worry about my own pain (which was getting worse). 10 weeks later it has just been diagnosed as frozen shoulder. I am fit, a non diabetic and the timing seems in sync with your theory. Good luck with your research

  • Regina Staples says:

    We lost our 34 year old son Oct 27th, 2019. July 2020 I started having shoulder pain, finally in Oct went to dr, had steroid shot, did an MRI and on Monday was diagnosed with frozen shoulder. I was wondering what could have caused it, this makes sense.

    • Regina – I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing. Do you feel like you have the support you need to heal physically and emotionally? I’m not sure how much I can help from this distance, but am sending you lots of love.

  • Dr Attila Jonas says:

    My name is Dr. Attila Jonas, consultant in anaesthesia and chinese medicine herbalist. Your theory makes complete sense with Chinese Medicine pathophysiology. Unprocessed grief drains the heart and lungs – The heart is connected to small intestine embriologically, so the small intestine meridian also becomes weak therefore cannot withstand the invasion of external cold and rain. This invasion then causes inflammation, further complicating the situation. The lungs are associated with letting go of emotions – also becoming weak from the unprocessed grief, therefore their meridian also becomes weak.

    The solution is as follows:

    Strengthen the heart and lungs with herbs

    Manual therapy – myofascial release

    Family constellation work (Hellinger) to undo unprocessed emotional trauma.

  • Natalie says:

    This resonates with me deeply my partner suicided 8 years ago and I soon after experienced frozen shoulder I asked doctors physios and chiros if it was connected as i deep down thought it was but they all said it was a rubbish theory 8 years on and still have constant daily pain and can not sleep at night and feel nauseous from the pain, I never dealt with properly or processed the greif for a miarid of reasons… kids relationship and his family laying blame on me i feel like an old woman i constant pain and discomfort and have concluded that i deserve it as punishment your video amd theory rings very true and if it can helo anyone in the future i hope you continue your work and possibly get funding ti back your theory xx

    • Natalie – thank you so much for sharing. I deeply appreciate your willingness to connect these dots and share the connection publicly. Thank you 🙏🏽

  • Todd says:

    My doc and I are putting on the finishing touches of cramming my RA into remission or whatever you want to call it. Due to the immune killing meds I took for 7 years it’s been a long reboot process. A friend of a friend turned me on to Mobility Mastery and I started my rolling around on the floor routine last night. Incredible instant relief. I have been doing a ton of good things for my boday and I just found another..Thanks so much for all you do Elisha.

  • Martha says:

    Excellent video, Elisha. I really appreciate your addressing this topic. I definitely agree there is both a physical and emotional component, and to me, it feels like it’s all about the nervous system. I’ve had two frozen shoulders (first the right side about 10 years ago, and now currently on the left). On the physical level, my experience is that they are extremely painful, and along with restricted movement and mobility, it feels to me like intense inflammation and hot, sticky, angry (like reeeally pissed off) adhesive tissue that is raging (thus the term adhesive capsulitis).

    I’ll share my story in case it’s helpful for anyone. My first frozen shoulder occurred at a highly stressful time when I was caring for my elderly mother who had an extremely large and deep leg wound that I likened to a battlefield blast. It was awful. I don’t know how she coped with the pain, because I struggled to cope with the physical trauma she was experiencing. I flew to MA to help her, working from my laptop in her home. After the first week or so, I started having strange sensations and pain in my arm, and sought out acupuncture. The pain rapidly escalated, and by the time I returned home 6 weeks later, I had only 25 degrees of mobility in that arm. I began working with a neuromuscular therapist who treated me twice weekly for 6 months and made major progress during that period. Then I saw a PT for a few more months. Eventually the frozen shoulder resolved and I’ve gratefully had full mobility since. At the time, I felt I had internalized my intense stress response to my mother’s crisis, and it manifested in this strange, mysterious way. Looking back in the context of grief, my family had also experienced multiple crises in the previous three years, including tragic loss of my young nephew, my father, disease, illness, and surgeries among close family members, etc. I thought I was expressing my tearful emotions and actively grieving at the time, but I was also coping, enduring, and protecting myself in order to survive, support loved ones, and get through it all.

    With my latest frozen shoulder, it began 8 months ago at the same time of year (fall) after having had intensive abdominal myofascial release for a similar type of angry, hot, sticky, adhesive abdominal pain two years after having had a hysterectomy. There certainly is grief around that event as well. My sense at the time the frozen shoulder began was that this pain was familiar and I recognized it as frozen shoulder. I sensed that clearing some of he abdominal restrictions may have moved the restricted tissue upwards into my shoulder, essentially moving the problem to a different location (also impacting neck). After having done Mind Body Breakthrough with Elisha, I now also believe my nervous system was in uber-protection mode and it locked down my shoulder because there is still subconscious work that my body isn’t yet ready to let go of until I make it conscious. This episode of frozen shoulder has held on for a long time without making substantial progress, despite seeing the same neuromuscular therapist. This therapist has been treating frozen shoulders for 30 years and swears they are most often linked to our biochemistry — usually diabetes, thyroid issues, etc. While my glucose/A1C levels have always been in normal range, I’ve had plenty of hormonal (biochemical) issues, having begun menopause shortly before my first frozen shoulder, with a hysterectomy and further hormonal impacts prior to my second frozen shoulder. At the same time, I also do believe there is a strong emotional component here and likely an underlieing current of fear held in the body. While I had not previously associated this with grief, per se, I do believe that grief is likely there as a deeper level of processing needed to recognize and confront deep loss — maybe of an existential, primal nature.

    So Elisha, thank you so much for putting all of your thoughts into a video and providing important food for thought on this topic. It’s such a bizarre condition that no one has answers for, and treatment and prognoses are just wild-ass guesses. I appreciate your helping us uncover root causes and underlieing issues that the medical profession doesn’t even begin to address — but YOU do. A world of thanks to you!!

    • clairebeach says:

      Martha, I know what it’s like to look after a mother with horribly painful ulcers. It’s very distressing watching the woman you love in such pain. My mum has had ulcers for the last four years. I’ve also had shoulder problems. I wouldn’t call it frozen shoulder but there’s alot of restriction and awful pain. Just picking up a cup of coffee hurt. Both shoulders. I thought I’d delt with all my grief, although dealing with my own chronic pain has been a very stressful process. I ended up having steroid injections. I used to play a lot of racket sports and against men. So I was very right side dominate. Since an accident a long time ago. My right shoulder, forearm, bicep muscle and the right side of the neck up into the occipital bone(easier to spell than say) gets pulled out of position.. So many things you say resonate with my own experiences that I have to agree. I also think it’s a physical and mental component of some kind affecting the facia. Thanks for another video. Learning every day. It’s great. Feels good.

      • Martha says:

        Claire, I really appreciate your sharing your story about your experiences, including with your mum. It’s fascinating to uncover the similarities across stories, as Elisha points out. I think Elisha and others have suggested that oftentimes, shoulder pain can be reduced by releasing fascia in the chest area. That’s one of the strategies I’m experimenting with now. I’m sending you positive thoughts as you continue moving forward and working through pain issues. All the very best!

    • Cindy says:

      Thank you for responding. At 67 yrs I’m healing from a frozen left shoulder for the first time. Since I have had grief & loss in the past without experiencing frozen shoulder, I don’t believe it’s solely emotional. Mine happened during a cold & dry winter combined with the winter blues, a cold, & nasty deep cough which hung on & Doctor would not give me antibiotics because there was no fever….this made me angry! Then, when I started feeling better I went to my Silver Sneakers class & over zealously stretched with the group which resulted in the frozen shoulder. Also, while I was sick, I was not drinking enough water & I was not eating healthily. I do believe there was an emotional component but also nutrition & hydration as well. Plus throw in my age & I will add my thin body type which contributed to the frozen shoulder also. I also felt great relief from a neuro muscular masseuse in just 2 sessions but $90 a session was too much. I’ve seen several physical therapists & am trusting I will get full function back soon. I am not diabetic nor do I have thyroid issues.

  • Sandra Anderson says:

    I got frozen shoulder towards the end of a failing marriage that I did not want to let go of..it wasn’t until I got a divorce then laying in floor crying during my stretches that my arm finally let go..I’m a firm believer that my injury wa due to emotions and yes mine was also on the left side

    • Hey Sandra, thank you so much for sharing! Your story is yet another that fits the pattern. I appreciate you for adding your voice to the conversation!

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