How to quickly heal following shoulder surgery using ice packs and other useful tips you need to know

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How to quickly heal following shoulder surgery using ice packs and other useful tips you need to know

So, your shoulder surgery was a success, and you can’t wait to get back to work or the playing field. 

The truth is, your journey to rehabilitation is just as important as your recent medical procedure, and slight mistakes can lead you back to where you started. The road to recovery lies farther ahead, but you can reach the finish line with a little help.  

Proper ice application, wound care and light exercises form part of the recuperation process, and we’re here to provide you with useful tips, among them appropriate icing techniques, to speed up your recovery.

What to expect after a shoulder surgery

Tender and swollen shoulders compounded by bouts of pain are expected following a surgery. Depending on the surgical procedure, a patient may be advised to wear an arm sling or immobilizer for several days and to perform light exercises. 

Pain medications can relieve discomfort, but they can also mask it, exposing the patient to overexertion during light exercises. This may cause re-injury or delay recovery. For this reason, cold therapy is another vital component to recovery.

How ice hastens post-operative healing 

Facilitating proper blood flow to your shoulder is essential to post-surgery recovery. 

Cold therapy reduces swelling and hastens tissue repair and healing because it opens up the injured area to facilitate more blood flow.  

Once the cold pack is removed from the affected area, the vessels dilate again, causing blood to rush to the body. This action is called vaso pumping, and it is shown to be very effective in moving fluids and reducing inflammation. 

Icing is, however, only one component of the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) method — a self-care technique to treat pain and swelling caused by  injuries and post-surgical procedures. 

Best icing tools for post-surgery

How do you apply cold therapy to a post-operative shoulder? Here are some icing tools to get you started:

Crushed ice in a bag 

This easy-to-make cold therapy tool involves taking one or two cups of crushed ice and placing it in a ziplock bag. 

To use: Cover the bag with cloth and ice away. 

Con(s): Crushed ice melts easily and does not keep cold for long.  

Foam cups or ice pucks

This lasts longer than other do-it-yourself icing tools, and you only need to fill a plastic or paper cup with water to freeze. 

To use: Once frozen, peel the top part of the foam cup, cover it with a thin cloth, and place on the affected area. Perform ice massages and do not leave it sitting on your skin for a long time. 

Con(s): Ice puck leaves a mess and could get your operation incisions wet, which may lead to infection.

Instant ice packs

Made especially for emergencies, instant ice packs are handy when you are in a remote area. It consists of two bags, one containing water, and the other one filled with chemicals such as ammonium nitrate that, when broken, create a cooling effect.  

To use: Squeeze the pack and place it on the affected area.

Con(s): You can only use it once and it might not be big enough for your shoulder. 

Ice therapy machine 

Get ready for some serious icing with ice therapy machines. Priced at $200 on average, it is the most expensive tool to purchase. You can rent the machine for as low as $15 daily, excluding the pads pegged at $50. The benefit of this method is you’ll get an intense and effective icing treatment.

To use: Fill the reservoir with water, attach the pads on the tubings, place it on the affected area, plug the unit, adjust the settings, press go, sit back and relax!

Con(s): You might need someone to assist you with operating the unit. Ice machines may not be readily available and they are expensive.  

Gel or ice packs 

These reusable icing tools are your best option. Gel packs are widely available and relatively cheap.

To use: Place the pack in the freezer, take it out once you need it and apply it on the affected area. 

Con(s): Choose packs that are durable and remain flexible when taken out from the freezer.

How to use ice after surgery

Icing is very important in the first two weeks following shoulder surgery. Begin stocking ice even before your operation, or, better yet, buy at least two reusable shoulder ice packs to ensure uninterrupted cold therapy. 

  • Continuous icing – Immediately after surgery, the thick postoperative bandages may inhibit the amount of cold that penetrates the skin. Using continuous icing is recommended at this stage and a reusable shoulder ice pack does the job really well. 
  • On and off icing – Once the thinner bandage is in place, the recommended application for cold therapy is 15 to 20 minutes, then off for 45 minutes to one hour. This should be continued throughout the waking hours.
  • Put a thin cloth on the affected area – Care must be taken to avoid frostbite to the skin by putting a thin piece of cloth in between the ice pack and your skin. 
  • Ice frequently – From one to two weeks following your shoulder surgery, use ice as frequently as you can. Applying cold packs regularly can help reduce pain and swelling, as well as decrease your dependence on costly pain medications. 
  • Do not sleep with ice on your skin – Patients are advised against sleeping with ice on their skin, as the symptoms of ice burn may go unnoticed. Worse yet, this can lead to frostbite and tissue damage. 
  • Do not get your incision wet – While you ice, be sure not to get the incision area wet. This can be solved by placing a thin towel around the ice before applying it on your shoulder.

If you have health conditions that result in sensory or nerve issues, you should avoid using cold therapy.

How cold compression helps your shoulder recover

Proper cold compression contributes to faster healing because it facilitates the blood vessels in carrying oxygen-rich blood through the tissue. Blocked blood vessels may lead to damaged tissues, which will further extend your recovery period. 

Applying a cold compress as soon as possible will stop the damage by unblocking your blood vessels and kick-starting the tissue-healing process. 

When can I perform light exercises? 

Apart from shoulder ice packs, mild exercises are important to reduce post-surgery swelling and bruising on the shoulder and arm. 

Within two weeks after your shoulder surgery, you may begin performing wrist, elbow and arm pendulum exercises. The earlier you start with light exercises, the faster your body will heal. The only key is not to do too much, too soon.  

Do not overdo it, and do not lift your affected arm away from your body, as this could compromise your surgery results. 

A physical therapist’s guidance will be most helpful at this stage.

Why do I need a sling?

Wearing an arm sling following shoulder surgery will keep your shoulder protected. It also helps prevent unnecessary movement and the possibility of re-injuring yourself.  

Use the sling during the day and at night while sleeping, unless instructed otherwise. Having an arm sling does not impose full movement restrictions on your shoulders. You may remove the sling several times a day for gentle exercises or when bathing.

Some doctors may require you to wear a sling for up to six weeks.



Are medications safe to take? 

Your doctor will prescribe pain medications once you’re discharged from the hospital. If you strictly follow the directions of the medication, you won’t have problems. Be prepared for potential side effects, though, such as dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, constipation and urinary retention. In the event of more serious complications, such as itching, rash, shortness of breath or difficulty swallowing, call for immediate medical attention.

Shoulder packs offer a better alternative for pain and inflammation management. They work great in soothing your postoperative discomfort and spare you from the potential adverse impact of pain relievers.

Recovery time for shoulder surgery

Reducing pain and swelling, as well as restoring and improving shoulder function, strength and range of motion, are the main rehabilitation goals. Post-rehabilitation results vary from person to person due to the following factors:  

  • Patient’s status – Age, overall health and activity levels impact the healing period. Older adults, for instance, require more delicate rehabilitation measures and their recovery might take longer compared to younger patients. 
  • Pre-surgery condition – The state of the shoulder injury prior to surgery is an important factor, especially in the length of recovery. For instance, a massive build up of scar tissue means more tissue damage following the operation and a longer rehabilitation period.
  • Type of surgery – The more serious surgeries, such as shoulder replacement, take at least one year to heal. Less complicated procedures such as arthroscopic debridement, labrum or rotator cuff repair require shorter healing time, from a few months to a year.

Signs of post-surgery complications

In rare cases, you may experience complications from shoulder surgery, such as infections or nerve damage. Contact your doctor immediately if you’re feeling any of these symptoms:

  • Yellow discharge or redness at the incision sites
  • High fever
  • Numbness or tingling in your fingers or hand on the affected side
  • Severe and sudden pain or pain not responding to medication and ice packs
  • Fever, chills, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting or other irregular symptoms


Rehabilitation activities, if done properly, could hasten recovery and reduce the chances of shoulder joint degeneration and muscular atrophy. 

Apart from age and health conditions, your commitment to post-operative recovery, and the proper use of shoulder packs, all contribute to faster healing.

Have you had a shoulder surgery recently? You can share your experience with us here.

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