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Icing Shin Splints

by Patty Weasler, RN November 22, 2019 0 Comments

woman icing shin

Shin splints, also known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), is more than just a pain to runners and athletes, the condition can lead to serious lower leg injuries if left untreated. When you start to feel shin pain that worsens with exercise and hurts to the touch then it’s time to investigate shin splint treatments. Thankfully, icing shin splints is one treatment option that is both inexpensive and accessible to anymore.

Cold Therapy for Shin Splints

Shin splints are an overuse injury that is caused by over-pronation, flat feet, and develop after repetitive movements on hard surfaces that put too much stress on the leg. Runners, gymnasts, and dancers are a few athletes that are prone to the injury. Treating shin splints at home is fairly simple, with one of the main treatments being cold therapy.

When cold is applied to the skin for periods at a time it causes vasoconstriction or the tightening of blood vessels. When vessels are constricted less blood flow moves through them reducing inflammation and pain in the area. Cold therapy will not cure your shin splints but is one great treatment option when used in conjunction with rest, compression, stretching, and advice from a sports medicine professional.

Stretches and Exercises for Shin Splints

Is it Better to Ice or Heat Shin Splints?

During the initial phase of a shin splint injury, it is best to ice your leg. The calf muscles, tendons, and tissue surrounding the bone are inflamed. Ice will calm the swelling and pain while your soft tissue heals. This is a good time to also take an over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or naproxen and use compression sleeves to reduce the amount of swelling within the leg.

After the initial injury phase has passed, about three days, you can apply heat to your lower leg. The heat will bring more blood to the area and loosen tight muscles. Try warm towels or heating pads for heat therapy.

When is Cold Therapy Not an Option

Think of cold therapy as a Band-Aid to the shin splint. It will cover up the pain and let you get through the day, but it is not the cure. You need to look at the whole injury and causes of shin splints while treating it through multiple modalities.

Shin splints can also mimic other conditions like stress fractures and compartment syndrome. Talk to your doctor before you begin treatment to determine the cause of your pain. Here are a few conditions that would also be contraindications to using cold therapy for shin splints.

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Neuropathy
  • Diabetes
  • Dermatitis
  • Vascular disease

Cold Therapy Techniques

There are multiple ways to deliver cold therapy for shin splints. Some are easy to use while you’re on the go, while others aren’t. Read through these options to help you determine the best option for you.

Ice Pack

When most people think of using ice for an injury they will first reach for an ice pack. Ice packs are filled with a freezable gel and can be reused. Look for an ice pack that remains flexible when frozen so it can conform to your shin. Ice packs are a great staple for shin splint pain.

Cold Roller

When you’re experiencing shin pain there might be nothing better than the pressure from a cold roller. A cold roller combines cold therapy and massage to numb pain and works through muscles and soft tissue. Roll the device up and down your calf muscle, avoiding the shin bone. Let the cold penetrate your leg while loosening up the muscles.

Massage Balls

Lower leg pain from shin splints can’t be ignored when you are traveling or on the go. Try using massage balls as a portable option that can deliver cold therapy along with trigger point massage. The combination of the two therapies are good for pre- or-post workouts in just about anyone suffering from shin pain.

Ice Therapy Machine

If you’re ready for some serious cold therapy for your shin splints then you’ll want to explore an ice therapy machine. Though they aren’t portable, an ice therapy machine will deliver constant cold to your leg muscles while relieving inflammation and pain. The machine uses a pad that contours to your body and is secured with a strap. The water tank pushes cold water through the tubing to the pad at a rate you set.

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 Bath

An ice bath can be done by filling a large container with cold water and ice. You’ll need a container that is tall enough to cover your lower leg. Though it isn’t a portable icing method, it is simple and effective at covering boney areas of the body like ankles and knees. Just remember not to submerge your leg for more than 20 minutes at a time.

Using Ice + Massage for Shin Splints

Ice and massage are two effective and safe treatments for shin splints. Combining these two modalities can be a great option for many people. The ice will numb sore muscles letting you or a physical therapist work deep into your muscles. The massage works on tight calf muscles and connective tissue to relieve adhesions and prevent scar tissue from forming.

Some people are comfortable pressing deep enough into their calf muscles at home on their own. But if you aren’t, check out a trained massage therapist or use physical therapy to perform an ice massage that will help get you pain-free and comfortable.

How to Massage for Shin Splints

Foam Rolling for Shin Splints

Icing Safely & Effectively

Talk to your doctor before you start icing your shin splints to prevent serious injury. Icing, when done correctly, can be a safe and effective way to treat the symptoms of shin splints. With so many different ways to deliver cold therapy, you’ll be able to treat shin pain and get back to all the activities you love in no time.


Patty Weasler, RN
Patty Weasler, RN

Patty Weasler is a freelance health writer and nurse. She is certified in critical care nursing and has been practicing for over 10 years. Patty lives in Milwaukee, WI with her husband and three children. She enjoys spending her time with family and educating people about their health.

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