Heat treatment for rotator cuff pain can be applied in different ways.

When my mother had pain from rotator cuff tendonitis as well as a few torn tendons, I noticed that there were two ways she often applied heat.

Neither worked very well. There had to be another way to apply heat to the shoulder that would actually work to subdue rotator cuff pain, and even go beyond that, such as loosening up a stiff shoulder.

The Problem with an Electric Heating Pad

If you’ve been using an electric heating pad on your painful rotator cuff, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t numb the discomfort.

Of course it feels nice. Any kind of warm pad-like object on the shoulder feels pleasant. But does this kind of heat subdue your shoulder pain?

The problem with electric heating pads is that they don’t firmly contour to the curvature of the shoulder.

There is airspace at varying points between the pad and your shoulder. It’s a nuisance to keep a hand pressed to it.

Alternative to Electric Heating Pad

Another method of heat application to a shoulder in pain is a pad that you microwave for a few minutes.

This is better than the electric heat pad, but may still not be the most effective for your rotator cuff pain.

These will conform to the shoulder’s shape better than will the electric heat pad.

What I found to work the best for my mother, not just in subduing the pain of rotator cuff tendonitis, but in loosening up a stiff shoulder, is that of wet heat.

Wet Heat

This is often recommended by chiropractors and physicians, as well as sports rehab specialists. But wet heat can take on two forms.

The first form is letting hot water from a shower head pleasantly beat down on your aching shoulder, or sitting in a whirlpool and letting a hot jet of water blast at the shoulder.

However, nothing quite beats wet heat in the form of hot wet towels, fresh from the microwave.

The catch is that every two minutes or so, you must replace the wet towel with a freshly microwaved one.

The heat dissipates rapidly, so you must near-continuously be heating up two wet towels in alternating fashion to keep the heat coming.

Depending on the thickness and size of the towel, the microwave can be set from 45 seconds to 65 seconds.

I used small towels and folded them several times, then laid them on my mother’s shoulder.

Because they were wet (not drippy wet, but very moist), they tightly clung to the curvature of her shoulder; thus, no area of her rotator cuff was missed.

Within minutes, her skin would begin turning pink, a sign that heat was penetrating and blood circulation was increasing.

I’d lay a towel down, then put the other in the microwave, then sit at my computer until I heard the microwave ring.

I’d remove the towel from the microwave and take the one on my mother’s shoulder off, then replace it with the newly-hot one.

I’d repeat this process for 15-20 minutes, stealing some time at the computer in between throughout.

If the towel is too hot for you to sustain holding it in your hands, then it’s too hot for someone’s shoulder — and the towels should be laid against BARE skin.

Why Heat Is So Effective for Rotator Cuff Pain

“Heat is an effective treatment to relieve symptoms of many types of muscular pain, including rotator cuff problems,” says Dr. Dave Candy, a board certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy.

“Physiologically, information about temperature (such as heat) is carried along similar nerve pathways as pain. 

“It acts as a ‘counter-irritant,’ if you will. Your brain receives that heat message, and focuses on that rather than the nociceptive (pain) signal. 

“Knowing that a warm towel or heat pad is not harmful, your brain releases opioid-like chemicals called endorphins that reduce pain.”

Dr. Candy endorses the use of moist towels heated in a microwave.

In fact, if you have a normal rotator cuff but delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from lifting weights, moist heat will be better than dry heat.

“Another option would be a heated shoulder wrap which is essentially a heating pad attached to a shoulder brace

“This design helps the heat better conform to the contour of the shoulder while also allowing you to move around and continue with your regular activities while heating your shoulder.”

Hot Stones

Another method that would relieve rotator cuff pain is hot stone treatment — if you want to spend the money, but even then, this isn’t a home treatment that you can do several times a day.

Perhaps the best heat treatment for rotator cuff pain — that you can do at home — is wet heat with towels, using two towels microwaved every few minutes to keep the heat going.

Dr. Dave Candy, PT, DPT, is a specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and owner of More 4 Life. He’s the author of Chronic Pain: You’re Not Just Getting Older, You’re Not Crazy, And It’s Not All In Your Head, available on Amazon.
Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 



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