Objectives Rotator cuff tendinopathies are the most common shoulder disorders. As persistent symptoms lasting more than 3 months have been shown to be a strong indicator of poor outcomes, it is important to have successful interventions in the acute stage. However, there is no evidence yet to guide clinical interventions in an acute pain context. The objective of this study was to compare the short-term effect of a 2-week gradual reloading exercises programme with the use of cryotherapy on symptoms and function for acute rotator cuff tendinopathy. Methods This simple-blind, randomised controlled trial included 44 participants with acute rotator cuff tendinopathy who were randomly allocated to either the exercises or cryotherapy group. Symptoms and functional limitations were evaluated at weeks 0, 2 and 6 using self-reported questionnaires (Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder and Hand, Western Ontario Rotator Cuff, and Brief Pain Inventory), while acromiohumeral distance, shoulder strength and active range of motion were evaluated at weeks 0 and 2. Results Following interventions, both groups showed statistically significant improvements on symptoms and function at week 2 and week 6 compared with baseline. However, there was no significant group × time interaction. There was no time effect on acromiohumeral distance, shoulder strength and active range of motion, as well as no time × group interaction. Conclusion The results showed a statistically significant improvement in symptoms and function in both groups, but there was no difference between the short-term effect of a cryotherapy based-approach and a gradual reloading exercises programme. Trial registration number NCT02813304.