What Are Shin Splints?
Shin splints refer to pain along the front of the leg, specifically the shinbone. It involves the large bone in the leg called the tibia, and the proper medical name of the condition is medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS).
Shin splints are common in runners, dancers and military recruits. They often occur in athletes who have recently intensified or changed their training routines. The muscles, tendons and bone tissue become overworked by the increased activity, which causes inflammation, swelling and pain.
Those individuals who are just beginning an exercise program or a running program may be prone to shin splints. Symptoms may be the result of playing sports on hard surfaces, while performing many sudden stops and starts. They may also be caused by running on uneven terrain such as hills and beaches.
Causes and Risk Factors
Shin splints are an overuse injury, occurring due to repetitive stress on the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments of the lower leg. One of the most common causes of shin splints is increasing running mileage or other high-impact physical activity too quickly.
Risk factors can include:
- Flat feet or high arches
- Beginning a running program
- Increasing duration or intensity of high-impact physical activity
- Improper exercise footwear
- Running over uneven terrain
- Military training
Symptoms of Shin Splints
Pain along the front or side of the tibia is the hallmark symptom of shin splints. It may feel like you’ve been kicked in the shin. The pain can be sharp or dull, and may increase with touch. Swelling of the lower leg may also occur due to the inflammation caused by shin splints.
In the early stages of shin splints, the pain may only appear during activity and decrease when you stop. Eventually, the pain will increase until it is present all the time. Chronic shin splints put one at risk for stress fractures of the tibia—painful hairline cracks in the bone.
Diagnosing Shin Splints
Shin splints are usually diagnosed with a medical history and a physical examination. During the medical history, your healthcare provider will be looking for signs of overuse such as high mileage running, any recent increases in physical activity and any evidence of other risk factors such as worn-out shoes or frequent running on hills or sandy beaches. Occasionally a medical professional may order an X-ray to check for the presence of stress fractures to the tibia or to rule out other sources of lower leg pain.
Treatment for Shin Splints
In most cases, shin splints can be treated with simple self-care steps that include the following:
- Rest: Avoid activities that cause pain, swelling or discomfort. However, don’t stop all of your physical activity. Stick to low-impact exercises such as swimming, bicycling or water running.
- Ice the affected area: Apply ice packs to the affected shin for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time, at least four times daily for several days. In order to protect your skin, wrap the ice packs in a thin towel.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever: Any over-the-counter anti-inflammatory or pain reliever medication such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen should be used to reduce pain.
Remember, if you resume your activities, do so gradually. By putting too much stress on your leg before it has healed sufficiently, you may experience continued pain.
Preventing Shin Splints
To help prevent shin splints, choose the footwear that suits your sport. If you are a runner, consider replacing your running shoes every 350 to 500 miles. Consider lower impact sports in order to remove the stress of weight-bearing exercises such as swimming, walking or biking. If you start new activities, do so slowly. Then, increase time and intensity gradually.
Strengthen other muscle groups such as calf muscles in order to remove stress from the front of the leg. Heel raises are some of the best exercises to strengthen calf muscles. Perform them by standing flat-footed, then raising yourself on tiptoes and lowering once again. Perform at least 10 repetitions. Start with your bodyweight and slowly and gradually increase intensity by progressively adding heavier weights.
Consulting Your Doctor
If you have shin pain that has not been relieved by rest, ice and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, it may be time to request an appointment at Essex Union Podiatry. Our expert staff will be able to diagnose the source of your pain and recommend a treatment plan that’s right for you and your lifestyle.