Pain, patience and lots of pills: how to defrost a frozen shoulder

Diabetic frozen shoulder

Want to see something gross? Apologies if you don’t… it’s probably too late.

This (pictured) is the inside of my shoulder. The smooth white surface to the top left is the end of my humorous – the ball that sits in my shoulder socket. To the bottom right is an arthoscopic punch, fed through a keyhole incision at the front of my shoulder to cut away the inflamed tissue that’s left me unable to raise my left arm for more than a year.

All that gnarled, red stuff around the punch should be smooth and white and about a millimetre thick. Instead, it’s at least 4mm fat; rather than providing a supple cushion allowing my arm to move freely around the shoulder socket, it’s become thick and fibrous. It feels like my shoulder joint has been stuffed with coils of old rope. Movement is difficult. It’s extremely painful.

Frozen shoulder isn’t an injury you’d usually associate with running. So what’s going on? And how can I thaw it?

It’s possibly, but not necessarily, the result of overtraining at Crossfit. If it is, I take full responsibility. I signed the disclaimer when I joined. I understood the risks involved when a flabby 35-year-old, who’s hitherto spent most of his free time sitting on his arse drinking beer and smoking fags, starts lifting weights above his head, doing handstands and trying to skip like a boxer every evening after a day at the desk.

Whatever the cause, diabetes has almost certainly prevented the frozen shoulder from thawing. Diabetics have a one in five chance of contracting this condition, I’m told. Quite why is unclear, although I’m told* some studies suggest diabetics have an imbalance in the functions enabling the breakdown of scar tissue: over-production of tissue inhibitors that restrict the production of metalloproteinaeses, which aid the healing of scars.

Hence all that old rope in my shoulder. Since last December I’ve had two nasty X-ray guided steroid injections into my joint capsule to ease the swelling and restore some movement, an even nastier operation (thankfully, under general anesthetic) to cut away all that scar tissue (see above photo) and hours of physiotherapy in which my arm has been bent in every way it doesn’t want to go. I’m still doing manipulation exercises three times a day.

Movement is finally returning and I’m now off the codeine. The consultant says it could be another year before the recovery is complete and warns I now have a one in three chance of one of my shoulders freezing up again. I suppose that’s partly what all this running across the desert thing is about: outrunning all the things that could go wrong with my body because my pancreas has packed up. And all the training will give me a better chance of avoiding other diabetes-related ills.

The consultant also says I won’t be doing handstands again and that I shouldn’t expect to regain much more than 70% movement again. I’m going to prove him wrong…

Disclaimer: I have no medical training. I am not a doctor, a nutritionist, a physio or a sports therapist; I doubt they’d even give me job handing out oranges at half time of a football match. I am just a type-one diabetic and former fat bloke with a stupid idea. This blog is my account of following that idea to its conclusion. Do not attempt anything similar without seeking prior medical (and psychiatric) advice.

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