Millions of professional athletes and runners worldwide are sidelined by shin splints regularly. Pain intensity could range from slight discomfort to palpable and debilitating, and it takes several weeks, sometimes months, for players and runners to get back on their competitive feet.
Rather than “running and exercising the pain out”, which most doctors do not recommend, the Rice technique offers a better treatment for shin splints.
What is the RICE method?
In 1978, Dr. Gabe Mirkin introduced the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) method to manage discomfort caused by soft tissue injuries.
Over 40 years later and despite criticisms, it remains the most widely practiced first-aid procedure for sprains, strains, bruises and other minor injuries that affect muscles, tendons and ligaments.
As the world moves to become healthier, the RICE approach has helped pain and inflammation management for a high number of common exercise and sports-related injuries, including shin splints.
Why rest is vital for shin splints treatment
Experiencing pain is the body’s signal that something is wrong. At the onset of shin splints, discontinue physical activities that put pressure on your lower legs. Shin splints result from repeated stress to the muscles and bones. To compensate for overexertion, relax for a few days until the pain subsides.
As with other injuries and inflammation, continuously moving your lower leg subjects it to further strain. Your recovery period will slow down if you forge ahead with strenuous activities. Wait for 24 to 48 hours following the injury before doing light physical activities.
For how long should I rest?
Your resting time should cover the period where most of your lower legs’ functions have been restored and pain has substantially reduced. This may take a few days or a few weeks.
While it is tempting to continue running or playing sports despite the pain, experts warn that shin splints could become a chronic problem if you push your body too much and refuse to take a break.
“Ice” therapy for shin splints
Ancient Egyptians first used cold temperatures to treat various conditions as early as 2,500 B.C. This practice, also known as cryotherapy, was harnessed in the mid-19th century by Dr. James Arnott to create a machine to treat skin conditions. Over the years, cryotherapy has been innovated for various applications, most notably for pain management and inflammation control.
Ice or cold therapy numbs the pain and hampers the nerves from sending pain messages to the brain. A lower temperature also constricts the vessels, preventing the accumulation of fluids that help reduce swelling.
Applied 10 to 20 minutes once every hour, this ice pack is effective in reducing pain and swelling on your lower legs. Wear this on and off for 20 minutes each time, and every two to three hours for the first 48 hours following the onset of shin splints. Application time is crucial, as exceeding the 20-minute maximum period is said to delay healing instead.
Tip: To avoid damaging the skin and tissues, ice should not be directly placed on the skin.
Cold therapy tools for shin splints
Various options are available for shin splint relief. Most are home remedies, while a few are handy enough to use on the go. It is recommended to have at least two of these products for best results.
Choose from the options below to see what works for you:
Ice packs – These gel-filled reusable packs are the first choice in treating minor injuries. Unlike other gel packs, though, Magic Gel Shin Splint Ice Packs remain flexible even when frozen, and are shaped to conform to your shins.
Massage balls – Portable massage balls use the principles of trigger point massage to help ease the pain. These handy tools can be used to treat shin splints or provide pre and post-workout massages while traveling or on the go.
Ice bath – Taking an “ice bath” for shin splints means filling a container or bucket with chilly water and ice and immersing your lower leg in it. Stick to the rule of limiting cold therapy application to 20 minutes.
Ice therapy machine – They may be less portable, but ice therapy machines are serious in delivering constant cold treatment to the shin. Connected to the machine are pads that attach to the body and secured with a strap. The water tank pushes icy water through the tubing, then towards the pad to relieve inflammation and pain.
Cold roller – Shin splints may be alleviated by a cold roller, which combines cold therapy and massage. It loosens the muscles and works through soft tissues to help numb the pain.
Magic Gel Shin Splint Gel packs come with a cryoball to massage your lower leg.
To use this handy device, 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.
Topical Gel – Another handy cooling tool, a topical gel works by cooling the skin and reducing muscle soreness and pain. The gel provides short-term pain relief to your calf muscles.
Compression and shin splints
As the body responds to the injury, fluids and white blood cells rush to the inflamed area to protect the body. Such is the normal inflammatory process that results in swelling. If left unattended, too much swelling can cause significant loss of function, severe pain and a reduction in blood flow.
Apart from applying ice, wrapping the sore or injured area with an elastic bandage snugly also helps reduce the swelling. Each piece of Magic Gel Multi-Purpose Gel pack has adjustable velcro straps that provide adequate compression to help you heal faster.
For those using traditional elastic bandages, though, you may wrap the affected area by following the steps below:
- Start farthest away from the injured body part to the heart. For shin splints, this means the lowest part of your leg working your way up.
- Cover half of the previously wrapped area each time.
- Loosen the pressure as you get closer to the end of the wrap.
- You will have wrapped the area correctly when the affected area ends up in the middle of the wrap.
The compression should not be too tight because it will disrupt blood flow and might worsen the swelling.
Tip: Loosen the bandage if you feel increased pain, numbness or tingling, as any of these could mean that the band is too tight.
Compression stockings, socks or sleeves offer alternatives to control swelling and may help prevent shin splints. They may be less effective than shin splint ice packs, though.
How elevation helps in shin splints
With swelling comes pain and discomfort, as swollen tissue presses against nerves that send pain signals to the brain. To avoid throbbing pain and swelling, keep your shins above the level of your heart, especially when lying down. If this is not possible for you, just raise your lower leg as high as possible.
Elevation to the level of the heart or above allows for excess fluid to be pumped back into the blood vessel system and will help in preventing further swelling.
Tip: Use pillows to prop your lower leg.
Variations of the RICE method
Not all in the medical field are completely onboard with Dr. Mirkin’s RICE method. Some doctors have debunked the technique while some suggest modifications, as shown below:
- Rest, Immobilize, Cold and Elevation (RICE)
- Hydration, Ibuprofen, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (HI-RICE)
- Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (PRICE)
- Pulse (typically radial or distal), Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (PRICE)
- Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation and Support (PRICES)
- Protection, Rest, Ice, NSAIDs, Compression and Elevation (PRINCE)
- Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation and Referral (RICER)
- Diagnosis, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (DRICE)
- Protection, Optimal Loading, Ice, Compression and Elevation (POLICE)
Notice that these different approaches keep the key RICE components -ice, compression and elevation – acknowledging their vital contributions in pain and inflammation management.
What to do post- RICE therapy
Pain and swelling should have minimized at least three days after applying the RICE method. Following the same principles in applying cold therapy, you may now administer heat on your shins for faster recovery.
Bandages may also be removed as you start performing light physical activities or exercises. A 50 percent reduction in intensity, length and frequency of your regular activities is the best way to start.
Shin splints: When to see a doctor
If pain and inflammation become worse, or if you develop symptoms like fever, dizziness and vomiting, call your doctor immediately for an appointment.
The rest, ice, compression and elevation method is the most practiced self-care strategy to heal injuries, and for good reason. Whether you’re a neophyte runner, an athlete or just keen on reaching specific fitness goals, reusable gel packs, adequate rest and light exercises are key to relieving your lower leg pain and inflammation.
Have you struggled with shin splints in the past? Tell us how you used the RICE method or any other technique to overcome your injuries. You may reach out to us here.