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Shin Splints: Symptoms and Treatment Guide

We’re going to take a quick guess and say if you’re reading this, then you’ve probably experienced shin splints in one way or another. This also means we both know that they’re not very pleasant. As well as causing pain, dealing with shin splints can take a toll on more than just our shins. Not being able to do the exercise we love, go for a run or train with our sports team can roll a black cloud over our mental health. But, you’re not alone. 

Shin splints are one of the most common types of overuse injuries, and trust us when we say that we see a lot come through the clinic. What might seem like a simple fix, rest, it’s important to take it seriously. Left untreated, shin splints have the potential to develop into a tibial stress fracture, which is a whole other can of worms. As you’ve guessed by now, this blog is all about dreaded shin splints. But, we’re also going to share some tips on how to prevent them. So, keep on reading!

What are Shin Splints?

Shin splints’ is the more popular term compared to its medical name, medial tibial stress syndrome. It refers to pain that can be felt anywhere between the knee to the ankle that runs along the shin bone (tibia – the larger bone at the front of your lower leg). As we previously mentioned, shin splints commonly occur from overuse. Runners, dancers and athletes that participate in jumping sports, think basketball, are particularly prone to this injury when the bone tissue becomes overworked by repetitive activity. 
The exact cause of this shin pain is unknown. However, the consensus is that it may be caused by the pulling of tendons and muscles along the tibia bone creating inflammation. Most commonly people experience pain on the inner side of their lower leg, this is referred to as medial or posterior shin splints. In more severe cases, pain can also be felt on the front of the leg, known as anterior shin splints.

Symptoms of Shin Splints

People who suffer from shin splints will endure some of the following symptoms: 

  • Dull ache along the inner side of the lower leg
  • Pain that develops or gets worse during exercise 
  • Tenderness or soreness along the inner side of the lower leg
  • Swelling may be present around the area of the shinbone (usually mild)
  • Shooting-like pain when performing jumping activities or walking downstairs

What Causes Shin Splints?

Shin splints are caused by repetitive stress on the shinbone and commonly develop after changes in physical activity. A common example is when someone starts running but has not previously been a runner. The significant increase and unprepared force produced by repetitive striking on the shinbone causes inflammation. Other examples include considerably increasing the intensity of your workouts or the number of days you exercise. People who participate in high-impact activities and sports such as running, jumping, basketball, football, dancing and volleyball are more likely to develop shin splints. As well as this, other factors may also increase your risk of shin splints, including: 

  • If you’re a runner or are beginning a running program 
  • Suddenly increasing the duration, frequency or intensity of exercise 
  • Running on uneven or hard surfaces, such as hills, forest trails and concrete
  • You have flat feet or high arches
  • Exercising in worn out or improper footwear
  • If you have a poor running form
  • Athletes playing high-impact sports and dancers

How are Shin Splints Diagnosed?

Most people can self diagnose shin splints. However, you can also see a Physiotherapist to gain a better understanding of your condition and what might be causing it. Your Physiotherapist may perform a physical exam which involves moving your ankle and foot around and feeling for tenderness in your lower leg. If your pain is severe, we recommend seeing a Physiotherapist as soon as possible.  

Several other conditions can cause shin or lower leg pain. If your pain doesn’t resolve, or it is severe, your Physiotherapist may ask that you get additional imaging such as an X-ray, bone scan or MRI to rule out stress fractures, tendonitis or chronic exertional compartment syndrome among others.

How are Shin Splints Treated?

If you’ve experienced shin splints, then you’re probably well aware of not only the pain they cause but the frustration that comes with having to limit exercise. We’d all love nothing more than an overnight cure for the condition. The first step in treating shin splints is to cut down or avoid activity that causes pain. We understand that cutting out exercise completely isn’t a solution for everyone. Options to keep exercising can include non-weight bearing activities such as swimming, using a stationary bike or rowing machine.

If you’ve experienced shin splints, then you’re probably well aware of not only the pain they cause but the frustration that comes with having to limit exercise. 

You may even choose to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen or aspirin to reduce pain and swelling. Other methods of treating or easing the pain of shin splints are:

  • Putting ice or a cold pack on the area 15 – 20 minutes, 3 times a day 
  • Stretching, strengthening and massaging the calf / lower leg muscles

Ultimately, shin splints heal with rest, but if you don’t address why they started in the first place, then you’re at risk of them returning. If you live an active lifestyle, consider seeing a Physiotherapist or Exercise Physiologist who can supervise and guide you through a safe recovery and work on preventative strategies. 

Preventing Shin Splints

Unfortunately, there is no ‘cure’ or 100% effective method for preventing shin splints. However, there are measures you can take to reduce your risk of developing them or making them worse. Some of these preventative measures include:

Wearing Supportive Footwear When Running or Exercising

Shoes, just like the rest of the things that we buy, wear down over time. If you’re not sure when your shoes are due to be replaced, read our recent blog on knowing when it’s the right time. Additionally for certain people, wearing an orthotic insert in your shoe that supports the arches of your feet can also help reduce your risk of shin splints. Ensure you’re wearing properly fitted and appropriate exercise shoes. Keep in mind that shoes vary between sports. Shoes that provide support for playing tennis won’t provide the right support for running.

Increase Your Activity Levels Slowly

We’ve all heard the saying about going from 0-100. But when it comes to preventing shin splints, it’s a different story. Ideally, you shouldn’t be increasing the frequency or intensity of your training by any more than 10% each week. So start slow and increase gradually over time. You’ll only delay your progress if you need to take time off to heal from shin splints.

Rest or Cross-Train

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced runner, try to avoid running consecutive days. Having a rest day in between allows time for your body to recover from the repetitive stress and force that are placed on your muscles, joints and bones. Consider cross-training with an activity that doesn’t put as much pressure on your shins. Low impact aerobic exercises we recommend include swimming, biking or rowing.

Strength Training

Although when we think of running we primarily think of our legs as the main component. We sometimes forget that our arms, hips and core play an important role in our running movement. Strengthening these areas will make you a stronger runner and help improve footstrike and body mechanics. Additionally, strengthening your legs will mean they’re more capable of dealing with the forces of running and can decrease your risk of injury.

Run on Softer Surfaces

There are plenty of running surfaces to choose from. However, concrete or bitumen is the most accessible for people living in urban areas. These hard surfaces may be doing more harm than good. As you run, you’re placing downward pressure on your knees and ankles. Hard surfaces are unable to absorb this pressure and compensate by reflecting this energy back up into your legs. Running on softer surfaces such as grass, dirt running tracks or the treadmill allows the shock to be distributed more easily so there is less pressure returned into the body. 

Keep in mind that running on grass or dirt tracks may pose their own risk; uneven or wet ground makes you more susceptible to slips and falls. The best way to reduce your chance of injury running on hard surfaces is to invest in good quality running shoes that offer plenty of support and cushioning. Our treating Podiatrists can guide you on the best shoe for your needs. 

If you’re often fighting off shin splints, we encourage you to come and see one of our Physiotherapists. Our team can help diagnose your condition and create a customised treatment plan that aims to get you back to the activities you love, pain-free. Call now on 073891 2000, or book online here.

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