Varicella Zoster Infection and Its Role in Frozen Shoulder Onset

Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV) is a member of the herpesvirus family and is the causative agent behind two distinct clinical conditions: chickenpox (varicella) and shingles (herpes zoster). Initially, upon infection, usually during childhood, VZV leads to chickenpox. After this primary infection, the virus enters a dormant state in the dorsal root ganglia of the nervous system. Years or even decades later, the virus can reactivate, leading to shingles, a painful skin rash often accompanied by postherpetic neuralgia and other complications.

  Frozen Shoulder, clinically known as Adhesive Capsulitis, is a debilitating condition affecting the shoulder joint, characterized by pain, stiffness, and a significant restriction in the range of motion. This restriction is due to inflammation, fibrosis, and adhesion formation in the shoulder capsule. While the exact cause of the frozen shoulder remains unclear, several risk factors, including trauma, surgery, diabetes, and some systemic diseases, have been associated with its onset.

  While the correlation between infectious agents and musculoskeletal disorders has been documented in various medical conditions, the potential link between VZV and frozen shoulder remains an intriguing area of research. Identifying a connection between the two could open new avenues for early diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. This relationship becomes especially significant considering the global prevalence of VZV and the severe morbidity associated with frozen shoulder. Thus, understanding this potential association might not only elucidate the etiopathogenesis of frozen shoulder but also offer novel therapeutic strategies for affected patients.

Varicella Zoster Infection

Etiology and Pathogenesis

Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV) is a DNA virus belonging to the Herpesviridae family. Upon initial exposure, typically in childhood, the virus infects the host causing chickenpox. After the primary infection, VZV becomes latent in the dorsal root ganglia of the spinal nerves. Later in life, particularly when the immune system is compromised or with advancing age, the virus can reactivate, leading to shingles.

Clinical Manifestations: Chickenpox and Shingles

Chickenpox (Varicella): Presents as a generalized itchy rash that transforms into fluid-filled blisters before crusting over. Accompanied by symptoms such as fever, headache, and fatigue.

Shingles (Herpes Zoster): Characterized by a painful unilateral rash, often band-like, on the skin representing the affected nerve. The rash progresses similarly to chickenpox with blisters that crust over.

Complications Associated with the Infection

Postherpetic Neuralgia: Persistent nerve pain following the resolution of shingles rash.

Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus: Involvement of the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve, potentially leading to eye complications and vision loss.

Secondary Bacterial Infections: Overlying bacterial infection of the skin lesions.

Neurological Complications: Including meningitis, encephalitis, and stroke.

Disseminated Varicella: Especially in immunocompromised patients where the infection spreads beyond skin involvement.

Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis)

Varicella Zoster Infection and Its Role in Frozen Shoulder Onset

Etiology and Risk Factors

The exact cause of adhesive capsulitis is still a topic of debate. However, a number of risk factors have been found:

Age and Gender: More common in individuals aged 40 to 60 and is slightly more prevalent in women than in men.

Systemic Diseases: Such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, or thyroid disorders.

Trauma or Surgical Procedures: Particularly those involving the shoulder or prolonged immobilization.

Autoimmunity: Some studies suggest an autoimmune component.

Clinical Features: Pain, Restricted Movement, and Stages

Pain: Initially, the shoulder experiences a dull or aching pain, typically worsening at night.

Restricted Movement: Restricted shoulder movements, both active and passive. Over time, simple tasks like reaching overhead or behind the back become challenging.


  • Freezing Stage: Progressive shoulder pain and stiffness over 2-9 months.
  • Frozen Stage: Symptoms plateau where pain might decrease but stiffness remains for 4-12 months.
  • Thawing Stage: Gradual improvement in range of motion over 5-24 months.

Diagnostic Criteria

Diagnosis is primarily clinical based on history and physical examination. Imaging, like X-ray or MRI, is used mainly to rule out other pathologies.

Treatment and Management

Physical Therapy: Mobilization exercises and stretching to improve range of motion.

Medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroid injections to manage pain and inflammation.

Surgery: In refractory cases, interventions like shoulder arthroscopy or manipulation under anesthesia might be considered.

Pathophysiology Linking Varicella Zoster and Frozen Shoulder

Mechanisms by which Varicella Zoster can Lead to or Exacerbate Frozen Shoulder:

1.Reactivation in Dorsal Root Ganglia:    VZV remains dormant in the dorsal root ganglia after primary infection. Its reactivation, particularly in cervical or upper thoracic dorsal root ganglia, might affect the nerve endings supplying the shoulder joint, leading to pain and inflammation (1).

2. Viral Spread to Shoulder Tissues: There’s a hypothesis that the virus, upon reactivation, might spread to nearby tissues including the shoulder joint capsule, causing direct inflammation and fibrosis, hallmarks of frozen shoulder.

3. Immune-mediated Response: Reactivation of VZV can stimulate an immune response which might mistakenly target the synovial tissue of the shoulder, leading to an inflammatory reaction typical of frozen shoulder.

Overview of Inflammatory Processes Involved

Synovial Inflammation: The initial stages of frozen shoulder are marked by synovial inflammation. If VZV plays a role, it could be speculated that viral particles or immune complexes trigger this inflammation (2).

Capsular Fibroblast Activation: Activated by inflammation, fibroblasts in the joint capsule can proliferate and produce excess collagen, leading to adhesions and contracture of the shoulder joint (3).

Cytokine Release: In response to VZV or an immune-mediated process, cytokines like IL-1, IL-6, and TNF-alpha can be released. These molecules further the inflammatory process and might contribute to the pain and stiffness associated with frozen shoulder (4).

Evidence from Clinical Studies and Case Reports Highlighting the Association

1. Observational Studies: Some studies have observed a higher prevalence of frozen shoulder in patients with a recent history of shingles, suggesting a potential link (5).

2. Case Reports: There have been isolated case reports of patients developing frozen shoulder shortly after a VZV infection, further sparking interest in the potential association (6).

3. Immunological Studies: Some studies have identified VZV DNA or related immune complexes in the shoulder joint tissues of patients with adhesive capsulitis, suggesting a direct or immune-mediated role of the virus (7).

Epidemiological Data

Prevalence of Frozen Shoulder in Individuals with a History of Varicella Zoster Infection

While the majority of the adult population has been exposed to VZV, leading to chickenpox in childhood, not all will experience shingles or develop frozen shoulder. Studies have shown that among those who had a shingles outbreak, a small but significant percentage developed frozen shoulder within the subsequent months or years. The exact prevalence can vary based on geographic region, study design, and population, but there is an observed increased risk in this cohort compared to those without a history of shingles.

Comparative Prevalence in the General Population

The prevalence of frozen shoulder in the general population ranges from 2-5% and is higher among diabetic patients, reaching up to 20% (8). However, among individuals with a recent history of shingles, some studies suggest this prevalence could be notably higher, indicating a potential epidemiological link. For a precise comparative prevalence, large-scale epidemiological studies with control groups are essential.

Age, Gender, and Other Demographics in Relation to the Association

Age: Frozen shoulder is more common among individuals aged 40 to 60 years. If a link with VZV exists, it could be speculated that older age groups, where shingles (VZV reactivation) is more common, might have a slightly higher prevalence (9). However, the onset of frozen shoulder shortly after a shingles outbreak, especially in age groups where frozen shoulder is less common, provides compelling evidence for a potential link.

Gender: While frozen shoulder is slightly more prevalent in women, shingles does not have a clear gender predisposition. Some studies suggest that women with a history of shingles might have a slightly higher risk of developing frozen shoulder than their male counterparts, but this observation requires further validation.

Other Demographics: Factors like ethnicity, comorbidities (e.g., diabetes), and lifestyle (e.g., physical activity level) can influence the risk of developing frozen shoulder. The role of these factors in the context of the VZV-frozen shoulder association remains an area of active research.

Diagnostic Challenges

Importance of Thorough Clinical History

Time Frame: Understanding the time frame between a shingles outbreak and the onset of frozen shoulder symptoms can provide clues about a potential association. It’s crucial to document any recent or past episodes of shingles, especially those near the shoulder region.

Symptom Presentation: Details about the nature, duration, and progression of shoulder pain and stiffness can provide insight into the underlying cause.

Other Risk Factors: A history of trauma, surgery, or other systemic diseases might serve as confounders when assessing the potential VZV link (10).

Imaging Findings in Patients with Both Varicella Zoster and Frozen Shoulder

MRI: MRI may show thickening of the coracohumeral ligament, joint capsule, and reduced joint volume. However, there’s no specific MRI finding that would link VZV directly to frozen shoulder (11). Any post-infectious changes or unusual patterns could, however, hint at an infectious etiology.

Ultrasound: It can reveal decreased synovial fluid space and potential adhesions within the shoulder joint. Again, while these findings are consistent with frozen shoulder, they are not specific to a VZV-related cause (12).

Differentiating Between Frozen Shoulder Caused by Other Factors and that Potentially Linked to Varicella Zoster

Clinical Differentiation: While the clinical presentation of frozen shoulder remains largely consistent regardless of its cause, a history of recent shingles, especially if localized around the upper torso, could be a differentiating factor.

Response to Treatment: If VZV were a direct cause, antiviral therapy might show some benefit. However, this is speculative and more research is needed (13). Patients with frozen shoulder due to different etiologies might respond differently to treatments. Observing how a patient reacts to conventional therapies can provide indirect insights into the underlying cause.

Recurrence and Progression: Frozen shoulder linked to VZV might have a different pattern of recurrence or progression compared to that induced by other factors. Long-term follow-up and documentation are essential.

Management Implications

Role of Antiviral Medications in the Management of Frozen Shoulder with a Suspected Varicella Zoster Link

Varicella Zoster Infection and Its Role in Frozen Shoulder Onset

Early Intervention: If a patient presents with frozen shoulder symptoms shortly after a shingles outbreak, antiviral medications like acyclovir or valacyclovir might be considered. While primarily used to reduce the severity and duration of shingles, their role in potentially mitigating the progression of frozen shoulder in this context is an area of research.

Preventive Role: For patients who have had shingles and are at an elevated risk of developing frozen shoulder, antivirals might be administered as a preventive measure, although the efficacy of this approach needs further validation (14).

Adjuvant Therapy: Antivirals could be considered as part of a broader management strategy, in conjunction with other treatments like anti-inflammatories or corticosteroids, to address both the viral and inflammatory components.

Physical Therapy and its Modifications Based on the Etiology

Varicella Zoster Infection and Its Role in Frozen Shoulder Onset

Tailored Exercises: While the core principles of physical therapy remain consistent for all frozen shoulder patients, those with a suspected VZV link might benefit from a gentler initial approach, given the potential ongoing inflammatory process from the viral reactivation.

Monitoring Response: It’s crucial to observe how patients respond to therapy sessions. Those with a VZV etiology might have a different pain threshold or rate of progress.

Combination with Medication: Physical therapy sessions might be timed in conjunction with medication doses, ensuring optimal pain relief during exercises.

Potential Preventive Strategies for Patients with Varicella Zoster Infection

Vaccination: The shingles vaccine, though primarily aimed at preventing shingles in older adults, could indirectly reduce the risk of VZV-related frozen shoulder by decreasing the chances of viral reactivation.

Early Mobilization: Encouraging patients who have had shingles to engage in gentle shoulder exercises as a preventive measure, especially if the rash was localized around the upper torso.

Regular Monitoring: For those with a history of shingles, regular clinical follow-ups could be helpful in catching early signs of frozen shoulder, allowing for prompt intervention.


The intriguing association between Varicella Zoster Infection (VZI) and Frozen Shoulder, though not conclusively established, presents a compelling area of study. Observational evidence has hinted at a possible link, especially in patients who develop frozen shoulder symptoms shortly after a shingles outbreak. While the biological mechanism remains to be fully understood, the overlap in inflammatory processes suggests that VZI could play a contributory role.

For clinicians, the potential connection underscores the significance of a comprehensive patient history. Recognizing a recent or past episode of shingles could influence diagnostic considerations and management strategies. It’s imperative for healthcare providers to consider VZI as a differential diagnosis or at least as a potential exacerbating factor, especially when conventional causes for frozen shoulder are absent.

While the preliminary findings are promising, they are just the tip of the iceberg. A deeper dive into the molecular and epidemiological facets of this association is warranted. Only through rigorous, systematic research can we hope to solidify the connection, understand its implications, and optimize patient care. This exploration not only can enhance our knowledge about frozen shoulder’s etiology but also offers potential avenues for more targeted therapeutic interventions. How Movement Patterns Influence Osteoarthritis


1. What is Varicella Zoster Infection?

Answer: Varicella Zoster Infection refers to the virus responsible for causing chickenpox (varicella) and its reactivation later in life, which leads to shingles (herpes zoster).

2. How is Varicella Zoster Infection linked to Frozen Shoulder?

Answer: Research suggests a potential link between the two, with some cases of frozen shoulder onset following a Varicella Zoster episode. The exact mechanism is still under investigation, but it might involve viral reactivation causing inflammation and immune responses in the shoulder tissues.

3. Can chickenpox or shingles lead to frozen shoulder later in life?

Answer: While chickenpox itself is not directly linked to frozen shoulder, the reactivation of the virus, leading to shingles, has been associated with frozen shoulder in some cases. However, more extensive studies are needed to establish a definitive connection.

4. What are the symptoms of Frozen Shoulder?

Answer: Symptoms include persistent pain in the shoulder, reduced range of motion, and stiffness. The condition often progresses through three stages: freezing (painful), frozen (stiffness predominates), and thawing (gradual return of range of motion).

5. Should patients with shingles undergo special monitoring for frozen shoulder?

Answer: While not every patient with shingles will develop frozen shoulder, those experiencing upper body shingles, especially near the shoulder, might benefit from early mobilization and regular monitoring to detect and manage any onset of stiffness or pain in the shoulder.

6. Can antiviral medications help in the management of frozen shoulder linked to Varicella Zoster?

Answer: The potential role of antiviral medications is still under investigation. However, if there’s a strong suspicion of a Varicella Zoster link, early intervention with antiviral therapy might provide some benefits in conjunction with other standard treatments for frozen shoulder.

7. Are there preventive measures for those at risk of developing frozen shoulder post-shingles?

Answer: Vaccination against shingles, early mobilization of the shoulder, and regular monitoring are potential preventive strategies. However, individual risk assessment and a personalized approach are crucial.

8. Are there specific diagnostic tests to determine if my frozen shoulder is due to Varicella Zoster?

Answer: While imaging tests like MRI can detect changes associated with frozen shoulder, there’s no specific diagnostic test to confirm its link with Varicella Zoster. A thorough clinical history and symptom onset in relation to a recent Varicella Zoster episode can provide some clues.


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