Shin splints can affect anyone – from the dainty ballerina to the dauntless sprinter.
Medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints are among the most common exercise-related injuries, causing half of the total lower leg injuries among athletes.
Novice runners and athletes who play sports that put extra stress on the lower leg, such as football and basketball, are often victims of this condition. Military personnel and dancers are likewise at risk.
Shin splints manifest as a pain or inflammation in the lower leg, particularly along the inside or front areas of the shin, including the calf. So, how do you deal with shin splints? Do you use heat or cold packs?
Let’s start by understanding the basics of shin splints:
What causes shin splints?
Classified as an “overuse injury”, shin splints occur after repeated stress on the shinbone and its surrounding tissues. The bones and muscles become overworked because of the drastic changes in physical activity and other factors.
Anatomical issues, muscle imbalances, poor running technique, wearing improper footwear and intensive training on hard and uneven surfaces are among the few factors that could trigger shin splints.
Unlike other acute injuries, a shin splint develops over time – a reaction to steady or repetitive tension. Running too fast, pushing too hard or training despite the presence of pain increase your chances of getting it.
Shin splint symptoms
A dull or sharp, aching pain and a slight discomfort that turns sore and tender along your lower leg could be the first few indications of a shin splint.
The pain might become more intense before, during or after exercise. Signs of inflammation on your skin, like redness and swelling, may be visible.
The first steps to healing shin splints: Rest and cross-train
When it comes to shin splints, “toughing it out” is not a smart move.
Shin splints are easy to manage if treated at an early stage. The first thing is to stop physical activities that put pressure on your lower legs immediately. As an overuse injury, you can compensate by not putting too much stress on your shins.
This does not give you the reason to be a couch potato, though. Shift to low-impact activities such as swimming and biking. You may perform light shin stretches at least a day or two after your injury.
Is ice or heat better for shin splints?
The general rule of thumb for ice therapy is that it is used for acute injuries, such as sprains, strains and inflammation. Cold therapy may also be applied for acute pain after an intense exercise.
On the other hand, heat therapy is best for chronic injuries, muscle tension, soreness and stiffness. As part of your exercise warm up regimen, heat therapy can increase blood flow and improve muscle flexibility. It should not be used after a physical exercise or immediately after an injury, as it will promote superfluous blood flow that may worsen swelling.
Before using a warm or cold shin splint pack, make sure you don’t have serious health conditions that affect your sensory perception or circulatory system, such as diabetes, dermatitis, vascular, neuropathic and cardiovascular diseases.
Shin splint: When to ice, ice (it), baby
In shin splints, the calf muscles, tendons and tissue surrounding the shin bone are inflamed or injured. As such, your objective is to decrease blood flow and reduce inflammation via cold therapy.
Ice helps reduce the swelling by constricting the blood vessels and keeping other fluids away from the injury site. It likewise acts as an analgesic, temporarily numbing pain receptors while the body starts its healing process.
The initial phase of injury requires the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) method. Cold therapy via the RICE method should be applied exclusively to the affected area for two to three days.
Icing shin splints 101
Here are some useful tips on how to use cold therapy for your shin splints:
- Use a thin cloth in between your skin and the ice pack, even if these packs come with pouches or sleeves. In rare and serious cases, frostbite or ice burn could lead to tissue damage.
Most shin splint ice packs are designed to fit your shins perfectly and come with adjustable Velcro straps for adequate cold compression. They can be used straight from the freezer, providing relief when and where you need it most.
- Apply on the affected area from 15 to 20 minutes, as recommended by experts. Any longer and you’ll risk frostbite and tissue damage.
- Continue icing for the whole day and up to two to three days. Doing this five times a day, with at least 45 minutes in between applications, helps keep tissue temperature low and minimises inflammation.
- Check your skin for possible adverse reactions like hives, extreme redness, etc.
- For runners, when applied immediately after a run, cold therapy or ice relieves swelling and kick starts the healing process after inflammation.
- Do not sleep with an ice pack applied to the injured area as you’ll get blisters or, worse, ice burns.
- Never leave the ice pack on your skin for over 20 minutes in order to avoid tissue damage.
Runners: Don’t apply ice packs before you run. Cold therapy numbs your shins, which could increase the risk of injuries.
Ice and massage for shin splints
- Complement ice therapy with massage techniques.
Deep tissue massage, which requires a therapist to press deep into your soft tissues, and trigger-point massage, which involves applying pressure on points that cause pain, are viable options.
These massage techniques help ease muscle tightness faster, but most people find massages uncomfortable and even painful.
The Magic Gel Shin Splint Ice Packs come with a cryoball that can be placed in the freezer and used cold to massage your lower leg. Combining deep tissue massage with cold therapy, the cryoball is an effective tool in healing pain and stretching your muscles. It is handy and can be used anytime.
To use, press the cryoball on your calf muscles, avoiding the shin bone. Roll it up and down the medial (central) and lateral (side) portions of your calf, focusing on the problem areas. You can do this for at least one minute for each leg.
When to use heat for shin splints
Two to three days after exclusively applying ice, and when swelling has subsided, heat packs may now be placed on your shins. Heat therapy works in three ways: it stimulates circulation, improves tissue elasticity and provides pain relief. The heat also allows more oxygen-rich blood to flow in the injured area, promoting faster healing.
Heat therapy tools
Experts remind hot therapy users to maintain a temperature that’s warm enough to provide relief but does not burn your skin. You can use these tools to apply heat on specific body parts:
- Heat packs – This heat source is commonly used in soothing and relaxing sore muscles, joints and ligaments. Hot water bottles, steam towels, hot baths or moist heating packs are a few of the tools under this category. This multi-use shin splint pack is safe to use hot or cold.
- Paraffin wax baths – These are predominantly used for cosmetic purposes on the hands and feet and can be availed in most spa centers. It boosts moisture levels and makes your skin supple and soft. It may be effective for patients with arthritis.
- Therapeutic ultrasound machine – Used by physical and occupational therapists, this special machine emanates ultrasonic waves to provide deeper heating to muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments.
Reminders for heating an injury
- Be mindful of certain precautions when using heat or any form of temperature therapy.
First off, the pack should not feel too hot on your skin. Test it before using to see whether it is warm enough to offer relief.
The 20-minute increment is applicable for both cold and warm shin splint packs. Using heat for any longer could lead to irritation and burns.
In addition, the improper use of heat packs – for instance, on fresh injuries – could worsen swelling and may further aggravate your condition.
Alternating cold and warm shin splint packs
- Applying cold and heat packs alternatively allows for a tissue workout without the movement and stress that could cause further injuries or inflammation. This method is perfect for your shins or other body parts that need to rest while they recover.
Both heat and cold therapy work to improve the recovery process because it brings fresh nutrients and oxygenated blood to the injured tissues. Its contrasting effect acts as a pumping mechanism for inflammation, pushing it away from the injured area.
The key to successful contrast therapy for shin splints is to use ice on the affected area for up to 20 minutes, causing the vessels to narrow, and then to apply heat for 15 minutes, causing the vessels to dilate.
Here’s a tip: Start and end the treatment cycle with a cold pack application. This way, the vessels will be narrowed and this will keep the inflammation from re-entering the area. Heat and ice can be used on all injuries or sore body parts.
Shin splints healing time
It takes about three to six months for most seasoned athletes or runners to completely recover from shin splints. Some cases heal faster.
The following indications will help you decide whether it’s safe to run like the wind or amble along like a horse once again:
- Flexibility – Your affected leg is as flexible as your other leg.
- Strength – Both of your legs feel equally strong.
- Absence of pain – Your shin no longer hurts when you push hard on the spots that use to be painful. You can jog, sprint and jump pain-free.
Your shin splints may have healed, but it can recur anytime, so we highly recommended keeping shin splint ice packs always available at home.
If, for some reason, your symptoms persist or worsen after three days or more, it is best to book an appointment with your doctor.
Shin pain and inflammation may be common, but you can triumph over it by being properly informed, having the right attitude and using the appropriate athletic gear.
Knowing when to use cold and warm packs for natural shin splints relief allows you to beat shin splints effectively. It also saves you from spending too much on anti-inflammatory and pain medications.
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