The many ways that ice therapies treat shin splints

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The many ways that ice therapies treat shin splints

Shin splints, also known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), is the swelling of the tissues and damage to the muscles and ligaments around the shin (tibia). Shin splints develop when the leg becomes overworked or stressed after sudden changes in physical activity. These sudden changes can include the increase of the number of days you exercise in a week or the increase of the workouts’ intensity, such as running longer distances or on hills. Other factors that might lead to shin splints include having flat feet or abnormally rigid arches or exercising with improper or worn-out footwear. Runners, dancers and military recruits are those who are frequently diagnosed with the condition.

A main symptom of shin splints is pain that typically occurs inside the shin bone. Shin splints can lead to serious lower leg injuries if left untreated. When one should seek treatment if they feel the pain worsening with exercise and when simply touching the shin.

Shin splints can be diagnosed reliably by knowing the patient’s history and through a physical examination. These are usually done by a doctor or physiotherapist. MRI imaging can be used to rule out a stress fracture.

If this is your first time experiencing shin splints, you do not need to worry. Almost everyone makes a full recovery from MTSS, which can take anywhere between three weeks to four months. The longer the condition persists, the longer it usually takes to recover. Measuring the amount of pain can be important throughout the rehabilitation process, and seeking help from an experienced physiotherapist is advised

Cold therapy for shin splints

Cold therapy is one of the most recommended treatment options for shin splints. The best thing about applying cold therapy to the shins is that it’s both inexpensive and accessible to any patient. When cold is applied to the injury for extended periods at a time, it causes the blood vessels to tighten. When vessels are constricted, less blood flow moves through them, reducing swelling and pain in the area. While cold therapy will not cure shin splints, it is one great treatment option along with rest, compression, stretching and advice from a sports medicine professional.

At the onset of a shin splint injury, it is best to immediately ice the leg. The calf muscles, tendons and tissue surrounding the bone become swollen during the injury. Ice helps in reducing the inflammation and pain as the soft tissue heals. Taking over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or naproxen and using compression sleeves to reduce the amount of swelling within the leg are also recommended.

After three days of the initial injury phase, heat can be applied to the lower leg. Use warm towels or heating pads for this. The heat will bring more blood to the area and loosen tight muscles. 

Shin splints can mimic other conditions such as stress fractures and compartment syndrome. Consult first with a doctor before beginning treatment to determine the cause of pain. Other conditions that would work against cold therapy for shin splints include cardiovascular disease, neuropathy, diabetes, dermatitis or vascular disease.

Different cold therapy techniques

Here are different ways to deliver cold therapy for shin splints. Some can be done solo, while others will require some additional assistance from a family member or friend. 

Ice massages

Ice helps in numbing sore muscles, allowing you or a physical therapist to work deep into your muscles. Massaging tight calf muscles and connective tissue relieves adhesions and prevents scarring. However, if you are not comfortable pressing your calf muscles on your own, seek help from a trained massage therapist or undergo physical therapy to have a pain-free and comfortable ice massage for your leg.

Cold rollers

Cold rollers are simple handheld devices filled with water and gel that are usually used in massaging the face. But this device also helps in massaging the calf muscle to numb the pain. Simply roll the device up and down the calf muscle, avoiding the shin bone. The cold penetrates the leg and helps in loosening up the muscles.

Massage balls

Massage balls are a great alternative as they are portable and can deliver cold therapy along with a trigger-point massage. The combination of these two therapies are good for pre- or post-workouts for anyone who is suffering from shin pain.

Ice therapy machine

If you need serious cold therapy for your shin splints, you may want to use an ice therapy machine. An ice therapy machine uses a pad that contours to your body and is secured with a strap. The pad attaches to a water tank through a tube. The tank pushes cold water through the tubing to the pad at a rate you set. Although they’re not portable, ice therapy machines will deliver constant cold to the leg muscles and relieve inflammation and pain.

Topical gel

One of the best features of a cooling topical gel is that it can go with you just about anywhere. Topical gels work by cooling the skin, reducing muscle pain and soreness. Most gels provide about 30 minutes of pain relief to your calf muscles. We suggest looking for a topical gel that doesn’t stain clothing and isn’t too greasy.

Ice baths

Ice baths are done by filling a large container with cold water and ice. The container can be a pail or a tub tall enough to cover the lower leg. This method is simple and effective in covering the boney areas of the body like ankles and knees. It is recommended to submerge the leg for no more than 20 minutes at a time and to have 20 minutes break in between each session.

Ice packs

The most common and convenient way to treat shin splints is using an ice pack. Ice packs are filled with a refrigerant gel and are reusable and are staple for shin splint pain treatment. We suggest using an ice pack that remains flexible when frozen so it can conform to the shin. 

Those are just some of the ways on how ice can help with shin splints. However, if you still experience severe discomfort in the legs despite using any of the above treatments, we recommend for you to immediately seek advice from your doctor or physical therapist. 

Got a question or anything I can help with?  My name is Steve Stretton, and I’m the owner and manager at You can drop me a line here. Good luck!

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