Shoulder Injury: Do You Ice or Heat?

Shoulder Injury: Do You Ice or Heat?

Population studies reveal that between 18% to 26% of adults experience shoulder pain. Many of these are a result of acute or chronic shoulder injuries. If you've been in an accident yourself, you may be asking, do you ice or heat a shoulder injury?

In most cases, you should ice a shoulder injury right after it occurs to help reduce pain and swelling. You can then switch to heat to help with injuries that are no longer red and inflamed.

When Exactly Do You Ice or Heat a Shoulder Injury?

You can ice a shoulder injury as soon as the trauma occurs. Many studies have shown that this kind of cold treatment can help ease acute pain and swelling. Researchers found that using ice therapy hinders the action of inflammatory cells.

You can use heat as a supplement to treat aching shoulder muscles caused by overexertion. It may also help reduce pain caused by fibromyalgia and other chronic conditions. Heat treatment may also alleviate spasm pains and cramps that affect your shoulders.

How to Tell if You Should Ice or Heat First?

Remember: icing works on new shoulder injuries. It should be one of your first aid treatments for most fresh injuries.

Fresh shoulder injuries can occur if you stretch or tear one of the tendons or muscles there. An example is a sudden or careless lifting of a heavy object. These actions may have caused you to pull (and then tear or overstretch) a shoulder or tendon muscle.

In the above situations, you can use ice to help reduce the swelling. However, it’s still best to see a doctor on the same day that you get injured.

What you shouldn’t do is to use heat right after sustaining shoulder trauma. In most cases, it’s best to apply heat treatment if your injury is still painful after a day or two of icing. Heat is also best used for chronic shoulder pain or achy muscles, but not for fresh injuries.

The only time that you can use heat right away is on a new-onset back strain. In most back strain cases, the pain arises from muscle spasms instead of damaged tissues. In this way, heat can help calm the spastic muscles while easing the pain they cause.

How Does Icing a Shoulder Injury Help?

The cold from the ice constricts the blood vessels, causing their interiors to shrink. This narrowing causes less blood to flow through the vessels. This then results in reduced circulation to the shoulders, helping minimize swelling.

All in all, the goal of icing immediately after a shoulder injury is to reduce bleeding into the tissues. The less bleeding that occurs, the lower the odds of inflammation occurring. With less swelling, the severity of muscle pains and spasms may also decrease.

How Often Should You Ice a Shoulder Injury?

You should only apply ice to your shoulder injury for no more than 10 minutes. After this, allow your shoulder to "warm-up" once again for about 10 minutes. After this resting phase, you can resume icing your shoulder for another 10 minutes.

So, the ideal treatment for new shoulder injuries is to ice right away, but only for 10 minutes. The "break" period should also be 10 minutes between applications.

It's also best not to exert any more pressure on your shoulder for at least half an hour following the injury. This is a crucial time as your affected shoulder may be at an even higher risk for more injuries. After this, though, you should consult a doctor as soon as you can.

Your physician is unlikely to recommend the use of ice for more than 24 to 48 hours after the injury. However, your doctor may allow you to continue its use if the swelling doesn’t disappear within a day. In this case, your healthcare provider may instruct you to ice your shoulder for the next couple of days.

How Should You Apply Ice to a Shoulder Injury?

Don't apply ice directly to bare skin. This can cause frostbite and more damage to the already bruised tissues of the skin.

You should, instead, use an ice pack or ice cubes covered with a cloth towel. If you don't have any of these handy, a pack of frozen vegetables wrapped in a clean towel can do.

Also, as mentioned above, 10 minutes should be the max for every ice treatment application. Any longer than this can lead to a complete stoppage of the blood flow to the area. For this reason, it's best to set a timer whenever you apply ice to your shoulder injury.

Does Heat Make Inflammation Worse?

High temperatures cause an increase in the blood flow to the skin. This occurs since heat makes the blood vessels dilate or open wider. The dilated vessels then allow more blood into the area where you apply heat.

The more blood that flows to the skin, the higher the chances of bleeding under the skin. This can then cause more unwelcome soreness and redness. That's why most experts don't heat recommend the use of heat as a first-aid treatment for injuries.

When Exactly Is Heat Good for Shoulder Injury Then?

While you shouldn't use heat right after a shoulder injury, it may still help you recover. That's because the vessel dilation it causes brings more blood into the affected area. This may then help promote the healing of damaged tissues.

Your healthcare provider may also advise you to use heat as a follow-up treatment to ice. Your doctor will also tell you how long you should use ice before you can switch to heat.

What Other Shoulder Conditions Can Heat Help With?

Heat may also help relieve stiffness in your shoulder muscles. Stiff muscles, however, are often due to damage caused by prolonged activity. For example, your muscles may become stiff and tight after exercise or hard labor.

At the same time, muscle stiffness can also occur if you've had a long period of inactivity. For instance, you may feel some shoulder stiffness after you sleep in an awkward position. Such symptoms are also common after sitting for long periods.

If you have chronic shoulder pain, you may also benefit from the use of heat treatment. Such conditions are often a result of rotator cuff disorders and shoulder arthritis. You may also experience pain if you have capsulitis or shoulder instability.

How Long After Icing Should You Apply Heat?

If you have a sprained or a dislocated shoulder, you can switch from ice to heat treatment after two or three days. Be sure that most of the swelling has gone before using heat therapy. You can use heating pads or hot packs to help ease and relax sore and tight muscles.

What’s the Proper Way to Use Heat Treatment for Shoulder Problems?

If you apply heat to your injured shoulder, it should be more warm than hot. Using excessive heat can put you at risk of burns and scalds.

Now, keep in mind that every year, about 486,000 scald injuries occur in the US alone. You already have a shoulder injury to worry about, so be sure to use care when using heat treatment.

On that note, it's best to use a warmed-up hot pack when treating your injured shoulder. If you don't have one, you can use a piece of cloth to act as a barrier between a moistened hot towel and your skin.

Unlike with ice, you can use heat treatment for longer periods. You can keep a hot pack or heating pad on your shoulder for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pack or pad after to let it breathe and air out.

What Ice and Heat Aren’t For

Neither ice nor heat is a cure-all for shoulder injuries. Again, icing right after sustaining an injury can help ease swelling and numb the area. On the other hand, heat can assist the body's healing process and relieve tense and stiff muscles.

For that reason, your doctor is likely to recommend the P.O.L.I.C.E protocol for your injury. This stands for protection, optimum loading, ice, compression, and elevation. Your doctor will tell you to use heat after ice and between compression and elevation.

What Else Can You Do to Help Treat Your Shoulder Injury?

Protect and rest your shoulder injury immediately after the trauma occurs. It's best to avoid placing weight on your injured shoulder for the first one to two days. If you continue to use your shoulder right after it gets injured, you may end up taking more time to recover.

Here are other things to keep in mind that may help your shoulder's healing process.

Don't Rest Too Much

After the first 24 to 48 hours of resting your shoulder, try moving it gradually. This is the "optimum loading" phase of the P.O.L.I.C.E protocol. It's the act of incorporating gentle motions to an injured body part after a short resting period.

Optimum loading can help bring back your shoulder's strength and range of motion. Too much rest, on the other hand, can impair healing. Also, resting a lot can cause joints to become even stiffer and also reduce muscle strength.

Stabilize Your Shoulder With Compression Support

Using a shoulder compression support or wrap can help alleviate swelling and pain. It works by stabilizing the injured muscles while also managing muscle temperature. The heat that the support retains within the muscles can then promote faster healing.

A medical shoulder strap can also minimize shoulder instability caused by an injury. It promotes proper shoulder alignment, which can then help your injuries heal faster. Since it also compresses the shoulder joint, the strap can help reduce swelling, too.

Elevate Your Injured Shoulder As You Sleep

Elevating an injured body part is crucial because it helps boost blood circulation. During the recovery process, you want more blood to flow into the damaged tissues.

Now, shoulder elevation isn't an issue when you ice your injured shoulder. It is, after all, already higher than your heart when you're in a sitting or standing position. However, the problem can start if you usually sleep without a pillow or if you sleep on the side where your injury is.

With that said, it's best to use pillows to prop your upper body up as you sleep. You don't have to sleep in almost seated-position, but you do want your shoulders to be higher than your heart. You may also want to use an adjustable shoulder brace to immobilize your shoulder as you sleep.

Follow Your Doctor's Instructions

Depending on the severity of your shoulder injury, the P.O.L.I.C.E protocol may be enough to help you heal. If there's significant pain or discomfort, though, your doctor may prescribe pain medications.

In most cases, these may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs). These can help minimize pain and also ease inflammation. You may also have to take over-the-counter pain medicines, like aspirin or ibuprofen.

If your doctor requires you to use a shoulder brace or strap, be sure to adhere to the recommended length of time of use. Most patients who experience shoulder injury wear these products for two to six weeks. What's important is to follow your doctor's instructions for when and how long to use them.

Proper Use of Ice and Then Heat Can Help With Shoulder Injuries

There you have it, the guide that answers your question, "do you ice or heat a shoulder injury?" If ever you get confused, just remember that ice, which is refreshing, is mostly for "fresh" injuries. So, ice usually comes first before heat when it comes to treating injuries.

Do you have any specific questions about wearing shoulder compression support? If so, then know that PowerRebound™ is here to answer all your inquiries. Drop us a line now, and we'll be happy to enlighten you.

1 comment

  • oleta J vatsula

    I tore my right arm muscle ,what is the best treatment this happened near a year ago Dr calls it a Popeye muscle shots don’t help how about the shoulder support found at this page please reply I am 89 and have enough to contend with Oleta

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