Why ice and heat packs, along with some useful home remedies, help ease shoulder pain

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Why ice and heat packs, along with some useful home remedies, help ease shoulder pain

Whether a sports buff or a couch potato, anyone aged 18 and older will experience shoulder problems at some point in their lives. According to a US survey, at least 2 million people visit a doctor each year for rotator cuff–related issues.

As a complex joint, the shoulder’s rotator cuff has unique anatomy that allows for the greatest range of motion compared to the other joints. However, the rotator cuff’s expansive capacity makes it prone to instability and, along with it, strains, repetitive injuries and wear and tear along the tendons.

Rotator cuff injuries may take a long time to heal, but cold and heat packs, along with other remedies, can help speed up recovery.

Rotator Cuff: What and where is it?

Supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor. No, they’re not magic spells from Harry Potter. They’re the names of the four muscles surrounding the shoulder joint that make up the rotator cuff. 

The subscapularis is located at the front side of the shoulder; supraspinatus at the top; infraspinatus at the back; and the teres minor below it. 

The rotator cuff keeps the head of your upper arm bone firmly within the shallow socket of the shoulder. It stabilizes the shoulder and allows for its extensive range of motion. 

In short, without it, you won’t be able to reach up to get the breakfast cereal, lift a bag of groceries and scratch your back.

How do rotator cuff injuries occur?

Repetitive stress, overuse, and sudden movements can trigger rotator cuff injuries.  

Persons with jobs that require them to perform repeated overhead motions, like construction workers and painters, are at risk, as are individuals over the age of 40 because of potentially worn-off tendons.

A jerking motion when trying to lift something heavy or falling on your arm while it is stretched out are only two of the few ways an acute injury causes rotator cuff trauma. 

What are the symptoms of a rotator cuff injury?

Pain, movement restriction, shoulder and arm weakness are the general symptoms of a rotator cuff injury or inflammation.

You are likely to have an injured rotator cuff one if you feel any of the following symptoms:

  • Immediate and intense pain – A sudden or acute injury results in a quick and sharp pain in the shoulder. 
  • Dull pain – An incessant, dull ache in your shoulder could likely signal a worn-out tendon. This kind of rotator cuff tear occurs because of overuse. This condition usually starts with mild pain when you try to lift your arms to the side or overhead. The discomfort worsens over time.
  • Pain while lying down – Whether because of a sudden injury or repetitive motion, rotator cuff trauma can cause pain while lying down on the affected shoulder. In most cases, the pain comes with certain movements and is more tolerable during the day. 
  • Weakness and restricted range of motion – Responsible for a wide range of motion, a rotator cuff impairment will make moving your arms a challenge. If you have rotator cuff issues, you might not be able to perform simple tasks such as moving your arms above your head, combing your hair and lifting items.
  • Shoulder stiffness – Your shoulder can feel stiff with lifting or by performing any movement. For instance, it may become more difficult to place the arm behind your back.

Why ice your rotator cuffs?

Ice helps reduce the swelling by narrowing the blood vessels and keeping the fluids and blood out of the affected area. A cold temperature also triggers an analgesic effect that slows down your body’s receptors from sending pain signals to the brain.

Ice your shoulders for 15 to 20 minutes, and rest for 45 minutes to an hour. Do this several times a day to manage pain and inflammation.   

Consider icing your injured shoulder before bed if the pain is waking you up at night (but do not ice your shoulder while sleeping).

Why use heat therapy?

Around two to three days after exclusively applying ice, and when the swelling has subsided, you can now use heat packs on your shoulders. 

When heat is applied to an injured cuff rotator, it eases tightened muscles and allows more oxygen-rich blood to flow in the injured area, promoting faster healing. It likewise improves your shoulder’s range of motion, something that cold therapy alone cannot accomplish.  

Using heat and cold therapies for shoulder injuries

Contrast therapy refers to the alternating use of heat and cold therapy to optimize the benefits of each treatment.

When used together, contrast therapy increases blood circulation that helps in reducing inflammation faster. Both heat and cold therapy also work to improve the recovery process because it brings fresh nutrients and oxygenated blood to the injured tissues.

The key to successful contrast therapy for rotator cuff injuries is to use ice on the affected area for up to 20 minutes, to have the vessels to narrow, and then to apply heat for 15 minutes to force the vessels to dilate. This contrasting effect acts as a pumping mechanism to the inflammation, pushing it away from the injured area. 

Start and end the treatment cycle with ice application. By ending with cold therapy, the vessels will constrict and this will keep inflammation from re-entering the area. 

Heat and ice packs can be used on all injuries or sore body parts at any time.


Home remedies for rotator cuff injuries 

Following a minor injury, use the RICE method (rest, ice, compression and elevation)  as a self-care technique to reduce pain and swelling and to fast track the recovery process. 

  • Rest  Avoid doing the activities that may have triggered the injury or inflammation. Limit heavy lifting or overhead activity until your shoulder pain subsides.
  • Ice your shoulder – Use reusable ice packs on your shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin to avoid damage and irritation.
  • Cold compression – Cold compression helps speed up recovery, as it facilitates the proper flow of oxygen-rich blood. Be careful, though, to not make the compression too tight. With elastic bandages placed on top of regular ice packs, it is easy to over-compress and suffer from further tissue damage. 
  • Elevation  Placing the injury to the level of the heart or above allows for excess fluid to be pumped back into the blood vessel system. This prevents further swelling. 
  • Heat therapy – After two to three days of using ice, you may now use heat on your shoulder. If gel packs are not available, a hot water bottle, a heating pad set on low or a warm, moist towel can do the job.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications – Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. In most cases, your need for pain medications reduce drastically if you use cold packs on your shoulder. Inform your doctor in cases of severe adverse reactions such as allergies, vomiting, dizziness or other side effects.
  • Light movements  Prevent stiffness by gently moving the shoulder joint through its full range of motion. Don’t push your body too much to avoid worsening your condition.

Light exercises for rotator cuffs

Once the swelling has gone down and your arm is no longer painful to move, you can slowly return to the activity that caused the pain. Do it with less effort until you can do it without pain. 

The pendulum exercise, doorway stretch, arm reach, side-lying external rotation and crossover arm stretches are among the few exercises that can help strengthen your muscles and avoid joint stiffness.  

When do you need to see a doctor?

In some instances, your injury might be more serious than initially thought. Seek immediate medical care once you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Loss of arm function
  • Deformity of the joint
  • Shoulder pain that persists for several days
  • Swelling or significant bruising around the arm or joint    
  • Fever, skin redness and warmth, which are signs of an infection
  • Any other unusual symptoms like difficulty breathing


Rotator cuffs are responsible for most of our shoulder movements and it does not come as a surprise that these joints become prone to minor injuries. 

Most individuals can manage with the help of shoulder ice packs and other home remedies, including exercises that improve the flexibility and strength of rotator cuff  muscles. 

However, serious injuries need medical intervention, and you must seek medical help if your condition worsens. 

Are you suffering from shoulder pain? How do you deal with it? Share it with us here.

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