Treating and Preventing Shin Splints
The primary bone in your lower leg, called the tibia or shin bone, is bound to the muscles of the calf by a complex and delicate system of ligaments and connective tissue. When performing athletic activity, this connective tissue is jolted and stressed repeatedly, and sometimes the result can be very painful. Athletes and coaches typically refer to pain around the tibia as “shin splints”. But what are shin splints exactly? How do they differ from more serious types of pain and injury? And most important, what can athletes do to treat them when they happen and prevent them in the first place?
What are Shin Splints?
The medical term for shin splints is “medial tibial stress syndrome”, since its effects tend to be felt along the inside line of the shin bone. This is where a line of sensitive connective tissue joins the slender bone of the tibia with the strong muscles of the lower leg. When the tibia is slammed vertically toward the ground over and over in a running motion, this connective tissue sometimes becomes damaged and inflamed. This can also happen during sports that involve repeated sudden stops and changes of direction, like tennis and basketball.
Shin splints alone are not a cause for serious alarm. As long as the pain in the shin comes from shin splints and not from something worse, like a stress fracture, this condition is mild and easily treatable. It doesn’t require athletes to give up the sports they love, and it certainly doesn’t require anyone to give up running or exercising altogether. But shin splints can be uncomfortable and demotivating, so the more effective the treatment and prevention measures, the better.
Treating Shin Splints
Shin splints typically start out as a mild soreness or tenderness that runs along the inside of the shin bone. Sometimes this pain is also accompanied by a mild swelling along the bone, or a swelling of the entire lower leg. If this pain can be linked to recent activities like running downhill, excessive training at a more intense rate than usual, running on slanted surfaces, or playing a sport with quick changes and sudden stops, then the pain is probably the result of shin splints.
Shin splints are very common among runners who are just starting a new training regimen, and athletes who raise their workout intensity by increasing their level of impact. Shin splints also tend to occur in military training programs among those who aren’t used to intense training and sudden direction changes.
When shin splint pain flairs up, it’s usually a good idea to let the tibial area rest for a while. This doesn’t mean sitting still or giving up exercise, but it does mean switching from running to swimming temporarily. Swimming, cycling, water running, and weight training are all lower impact exercises that can keep the body strong and in motion while giving the shins a rest.
In the meantime, icing the area can reduce the inflammation and swelling that lead to pain. When shin splints flair up, ice the leg for about twenty minutes at a time. If the pain lasts for a long time after the activity is over, ice the area for twenty minutes sessions about eight times a day.
Compression and elevation can also reduce the pain of shin splints. Try raising the leg above the level of the heart while sitting, laying down or sleeping. This can help fluid and swelling drain away from the area of inflammation. During the day, wrap the lower leg snuggly in a compression sleeve or an ace bandage.
Tylenol, Aleve, Advil and other over the counter pain medications should be strong enough to manage the pain until the connective tissue heals. In the meantime, athletes should think carefully about footwear and consider arch supports and shoes that reduce hard impact between the shin bone and the ground.
Preventing Shin Splints
The best way to prevent shin splints is to reduce the stress placed on the tibia during repeated activities. These simple adjustments to a regular exercise routine can help:
1. Better shoes. Serious runners should replace their training shoes at least once every five hundred miles. Others who engage in high impact sports should make sure their shoes are appropriate for the sport and aren’t worn down or compressed in the sole.
2. Attention to playing surfaces. If your running route or playing field involves hard concrete, try switching to a grass field or a cushioned track. Watch out for excessive hills and slanted surfaces.
3. Strength building exercises and stretches for shin splints. Add toe raises and other calf exercises to your weight training routine and you’ll strengthen and secure loose areas of connective tissue around the tibia. Stretches for shin splints can also improve circulation to the affected area, which can speed the healing process.
4. Stop pushing through pain. Shin splint pain doesn’t go away on its own. As soon as the pain becomes noticeable or unbearable, rest.
When to See a Doctor
Keep in mind that not all shin pain is the result of a simple inflammation. If you experience any of these symptoms below, make an appointment with a doctor for an X-ray, since you may have a small tibial fracture:
1. Severe swelling
2. Pain that doesn’t go away with rest, ice, and elevation.
3. Extreme pain after a fall or after something strikes against the shin bone during an accident.
4. Heat radiating from a painful, swollen shin.
If you realize that you’re naturally prone to shin splints and your prevention and treatment methods are only taking you so far, consider making some long term changes to your cardio and weight training routine. Maintain your workout intensity, but reduce the impact you place on your bones and joints. Working out with Kbands can be a great place to start, since Kbands increase the tension on the muscles of the legs without raising impact on the joints. For more information about targeted resistance training and how it works, take a look at the training tab and choose your specific sport.