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Icing your calf strain. Will it really help?
Icing for Calve strain
Kim Van Deventer
Dec 22, 2021
People often use ice for calf strains, claiming it reduces pain, swelling, and inflammation. Learn how ice works and if it should be part of your recovery program.

So, you pushed a little too hard in your run and felt the dreaded ‘ping’ in your calf muscle. It’s been a couple of hours, the pain is getting worse, and stretching isn’t working. So, you wonder, will ice help?

Before grabbing that bag of frozen peas, there are a few aspects to carefully consider.

With calf strains, treatment is usually aimed at minimizing the damage, promoting muscle healing, and later, restoring your function. But is ice the best way to help you achieve these goals?

Let’s see.

Minimizing injury

This involves keeping you comfortable and making sure your injury doesn’t worsen. How does ice help with this?

First, let’s look at what effects icing has on the muscle tissue and determine if it will help.

What does ice do to your muscle tissues?

The science shows that icing an area of your body can:

Icing your calf strain

How your muscle tissue will react
1
Decrease blood flow and bleeding
2
Numb your nerves and slow down their signals
3
Reduce symptoms of acute inflammation like pain and swelling
4
Lower the local energy demands (how much energy they need) for the surviving tissues

Does ice help with pain?

Probably.

Although precise protocols for pain relief are unclear, research suggests that ice can help reduce pain associated with soft tissue injuries. And further evidence supports this idea that there’s no value in using ice for acute injuries other than the temporary pain relief and numbing effect.

Ice may reduce pain in two main ways:

1
Decreasing swelling and taking the pressure off your nerves results in less pain.
2
By numbing the nerves and allowing fewer pain signals to reach your brain, which causes a reduction in pain perception.

What's the verdict?

Ice is a safe and effective pain relief modality that is easy to access and apply. There are precautions and safety issues to follow highlighted in the following sections.

Does ice help with swelling?

Although ice seems like a quick and easy option for reducing swelling, the supporting evidence is limited and conflicting.

For example, in one study, icing slowed down swelling in severe injuries. This is a good thing since severe swelling can prevent healing.

While in another study, ice made swelling worse. Possibly because, when cooled, lymph vessels (the waste drainage system of your body) can become more porous and cause a backflow of lymphatic fluid into the injury site. Poor lymph drainage and blood circulation resulted in more swelling in this case. This is why it’s important to not over-cool an area.

What's the verdict?

Ice probably isn’t the best option to reduce swelling if your calf injury is mild or if you only have only minimal swelling. If it’s severe, ice may help control the swelling. Always speak to a Doctor before using ice on a severe injury. Over-cooling an area may make your swelling worse. See the section lower down on how to safely apply ice.

Does ice help reduce further injury?

Ice may help reduce secondary injuries by decreasing swelling and taking the pressure of the adjacent tissues. This confines the tissue damage to a smaller area.

It could also lower the energy demands of the tissues, meaning injured muscle cells will need less energy and oxygen to survive and recover. This could help the wounded cells recover sooner.

What's the verdict?

In severe injuries, icing may reduce the risk of secondary injuries and make it easier for muscle cells to heal. We need more research into this before we know for sure.

Muscle healing

Ice can either help or delay healing

The evidence behind using ice for promoting muscle healing is weak and conflicting.

Some research suggests it may help your injury heal. At the same time, other studies conclude it has a limited role in acute injury recovery. In addition, many studies report that ice may delay healing rather than improve it.

Research reports that ice may delay healing

The problem we’ve found with the available research is fourfold.
1
Many studies only use healthy individuals.
2
The “injuries” are usually induced through exercise rather than trauma.
3
Most studies use animals rather than human participants.
4
No studies specifically examine the effect of ice on traumatic muscle injuries in humans.

These issues make it challenging to apply research to practice.

Even though there are clearly gaps in the research, if we look closer, ice may help with muscle healing more than we think. This is how.

Ice can help get you moving

Severe pain can limit your mobility. In this case, ice can take the edge off your pain and get you comfortably moving again. This can help you start a calf strain rehab program or keep you on track with it.

Movement ramps up circulation

Early pain-free active movements get your muscles working. Acting as a pump for your lymphatic vessels and stimulating your blood circulation.

Better blood and lymphatic flow mean it’s out with the “bad” and in with the “good.” Dead muscle cells, waste products, and toxins are removed. And oxygen, nutrients, and tissue-building cells are brought in.

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When balance is restored, healing can progress

With a healthy balance in the tissues once again, your calf injury can progress smoothly from the inflammatory phase into the repair phase of healing.

What's the verdict?

When severe pain limits your movement, ice can be used in your early injury stage to get you started with gentle rehab exercises. Activity stimulates your circulation and helps your healing process.

How to use ice safely on your calf strain

When should you apply ice to your calf injury?

Apply ice as soon as possible after your injury. It works better for limiting swelling and decreasing short-term pain only up to 1-week post-injury. The long-term effects of icing on tissue repair and return to sport are unknown.

How often and how long should you apply ice to your calf injury?

Evidence shows icing several times a day, for short periods – 10 to 15 minutes, and no more than 20 minutes, is more effective than prolonged use. Intermittent use also reduces the risk of an icing injury (when the tissue cools too much).

When applying ice, the duration and intensity are crucial factors to consider because the vasoconstricting (blood vessel narrowing) effects of icing continue even after removing it. This is why applying ice for prolonged periods can stop the healing process.

Precautions and contraindications

  • Never apply ice directly to the skin or over an open wound, as it can damage your skin and tissues.
  • Do not use ice for your calf injury if you have skin sensitivity problems, cold disorders, or poor circulation.

Types of icing for your calf strain

Frozen peas work really well, as it molds to the shape of your calf.

There are different ways to apply ice to your injured calf. The most common options include:

  • Home-made ice packs (ice blocks and water in a resealable bag or a bag of frozen peas)
  • Commercial frozen gel packs (although there’s evidence that frozen peas work better than gel ice packs)
  • Ice massage using an ice cup made from a paper cup filled with water and placed in a freezer (this works almost 40% better than ice packs)

Icing your muscles after the acute injury phase

There is limited evidence that icing helps to control pain and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness during and after exercise. But, some research shows it could be detrimental to muscle strength and endurance if applied after workouts.

Does this mean that you should avoid it at all costs? No, it depends on your circumstances.

We advise you avoid routine icing in sport as it’s often unneeded and may not be helpful. There are times when applying ice can be beneficial. We’ll discuss this topic in more detail in a future article.

More research needs to be done to support the use of ice beyond the acute phase of injury. For now, leave the ice to the earliest stage of your recovery (i.e. the first 72 hours).

Conclusion

Sometimes icing a calf injury does help, but, most times, it’s not necessary.

Your body has a highly intelligent built-in system that heals you on its own. Pain and swelling after an injury are signs that this healing process has started. Often it’s best not to fiddle with it. Instead, allow your body to lead the way and let the symptoms run their natural course.

Progressive calf strengthening

One of the best ways you can support this process is by following a progressive calf strengthening program that aligns with your phases of healing. This ensures you build strong and resilient muscles while you heal.

If you need help finding your way through your calf injury, we are here!

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Kim Van Deventer
Kim Van Deventer is a freelance healthcare writer and digital content strategist for healthcare businesses and medical content agencies. She worked as a physiotherapist for more than 14 years, specialising in sports injury rehabilitation, chronic pain management, and women's health. Kim combines her clinical experience and digital marketing skills to create relevant and helpful content that improves patients' lives.
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