The best at-home ice and heat treatments for shoulder pain

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The best at-home ice and heat treatments for shoulder pain

From performing household chores, lifting groceries to driving the car, our shoulders provide us with the mobility and strength to accomplish essential tasks. 

The wide range of movement and constant activities we do increase our shoulders’ risk for tissue and bone impingements that cause pain. According to experts, the shoulder is one of the easiest body parts to injure and re-injure. Until one wakes up with a discomforting pain or has the inability to reach for a cup of coffee, our shoulders do not get the attention it deserves. 

Stop giving your aching shoulder the cold shoulder and discover these simple yet effective home remedies to ease shoulder pain. 

The shoulder and its parts 

The cartilage-cushioned shoulder is one of the most complex and largest joints in our body. It is a ball-and-socket joint which comprises three major bone structures: the humerus (long arm bone), the clavicle (collarbone) and the scapula (shoulder blade).

Two main joints allow it to move: the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, located at the top of the shoulder, and the shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint), a ball and socket joint between the shoulder blade and the long arm bone. Pain is usually felt in and around these parts.

What causes shoulder pain?

As a ball and socket joint, the shoulder is susceptible to pain and inflammation for various reasons. Shoulder pains may involve the swelling of the cartilage, ligaments, muscles, nerves or tendons. Strains, tendonitis, arthritis, pinched nerves and dislocations are among the possible causes of shoulder pain.

The pain varies in intensity depending on its source—you may feel it only when you move your shoulder, or all the time. The pain may come gradually or abruptly, and it could be mild or excruciating enough to warrant medical treatment.

Although it can affect anyone, the elderly are more vulnerable, as their bodies are less resilient to trauma and inflammation.

Cold and hot remedies for shoulder pain

To determine whether to use ice or heat packs for your shoulder pain, it is important to know what each does to the injury or inflammation.

When to use cold therapy  

The body’s inflammatory reaction releases chemicals which leak fluid into the tissues, causing the affected area to swell. Inflammation helps isolate the foreign substance from further contact with body tissues. 

Using ice or cold therapy narrows blood vessels and minimizes swelling by keeping the fluids and blood out of the injured or affected area.

Recent injuries and acute pain, and the swelling that goes with it, are best treated with a cold shoulder ice pack. Injured shoulders should be iced for 15-20 minutes at least three times per day for at least the next 72 hours, or until the swelling has subsided.

When to use heat therapy

While ice packs are best at the onset of shoulder pain and injuries, heat packs work well if applied from two to three days following an injury or when the swelling has already subsided.

Using heat relaxes tense muscles, relieves stiff shoulders and improves blood circulation. Home remedies for heat therapy application, like hot showers, saunas, steam baths, hot baths or warm damp towels, can help loosen tight muscles. 

To avoid increasing inflammation and slowing down the healing process, use heat only for shoulder pain and injuries that are no longer swollen.

Heat and cold therapy for specific shoulder injuries

Still confused when to use warm or ice gel packs for shoulder pain? Below are the most common shoulder injuries and inflammation, its symptoms and how you can treat them:


Shoulder arthritis happens when the cartilage in the shoulder breaks down on the surface and eventually in the deeper layers. Arthritic patients may feel joint pain and stiffness, as well as grinding or clicking of the joints.

Using ice or a cold pack eases the pain while heat eases the joints. However, do not apply heat if your joints are swollen. 

Bursitis, biceps tendonitis, impingement and rotator cuff tendonitis 

These conditions refer to painful inflammations usually felt along your shoulder,  sometimes including the upper arm and the upper back sections.    

Placing a shoulder ice pack on the affected area helps reduce inflammation and pain. Doctors recommend placing a cold pack on your shoulder for 15-20 minutes every three or four hours. 

About three days or when the swelling has reduced, warm packs may now be applied on your shoulders to relax tightened and sore muscles.

Frozen shoulder 

When you have stiffness and pain in your shoulder joint and you find it difficult to move, it is probably due to a frozen shoulder, otherwise known as adhesive capsulitis. The condition begins gradually but aggravates over time before healing itself in a few months or within three years. 

A shoulder ice pack offers the best pain relief for frozen shoulder and shoulder inflammation. You may use cold therapy exclusively for this condition.

Useful tips for alternating heat and cold therapies

In using the alternating warm and cold therapy for shoulder pain, start with ice for 20 minutes, and then heat for 15 minutes. The contrasting effect of vasoconstriction from cold therapy and vasodilation from heat therapy acts as a pumping mechanism, pushing inflammation away from the affected area. 

End an alternating treatment with a cold pack as vasoconstriction prevents the re-entry of inflammation. 

How compression helps shoulder pain treatment

When used in conjunction with cold therapy, compression further minimizes swelling. You would need to apply compression to your shoulder, as untreated inflammation may lead to even more swelling, and too much swelling slows down the healing process. 

Go for shoulder packs with adjustable straps that are not only comfortable, but are useful in providing a snug fit for proper cold compression.  

Other home remedies 

After soothing the inflammation comes the need to strengthen the muscles through rest and gentle exercises. Below are additional tips to relieve shoulder pain at home:


Rest is an integral part of pain and inflammation reduction. As such, do not engage in activities that may trigger shoulder pain. 

To keep the shoulder muscles strong and flexible, continue moving your shoulders gently, though.

Exercise your shoulder 

The following simple exercises may be performed while you wait to completely heal from an injury or chronic pain:   

1. Pendulum stretch 

  • Stand and bend at the waist.
  • Let your arm on the injured side hang straight down.
  • Relax your neck.
  • Gently swing the hanging arm in a circle or pendulum motion up to 20 times.

2. Overhead shoulder stretch

  • Intertwine your fingers in front of you.
  • Bend your elbows and raise your arms above your head. You can also place your hands on or behind your head.
  • Move your elbows back by gently squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  • Repeat 20 times

Hot bath

To reduce shoulder strain or discomfort, soak in a hot or warm bath for at least 20 minutes. You may mix Epsom salts in your hot water bath. The salt reduces muscle tension and increases blood flow. 


Have someone apply massage oil and knead the muscles of the sore area. If you live alone, put a tennis ball inside a sock. Put the sock at the back of the affected area, go against the wall and apply pressure to the tennis ball and roll around. 


While shoulder ice packs and warm packs are your best friend for natural pain and inflammation management, this does not discourage you from taking medicines to relieve discomfort. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, may either be  doctor-prescribed or over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammatory medications. 

Risk groups

Those suffering from nerve disorders or other serious conditions, such as diabetes, vascular diseases or multiple sclerosis should refrain from using hot and cold packs. Those with heart disease and hypertension are advised to seek a doctor’s advice before utilizing either means of therapy.  

If your pain becomes unbearable despite using heat therapy and cold shoulder ice packs, you may want to see your doctor. 


You don’t need to spend a lot of time, effort, or money to manage shoulder pain and inflammation. By doing simple home remedies, including proper application of both heat and cold therapies, you could banish shoulder pain and swelling in no time.

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