Shin splints is a medical condition that is characterized by pain along the inner edge of the shinbone (tibia). It is technically known as medial tibial stress syndrome. The injury is common among athletes in sports that involve a lot of running or jumping. Besides runners, dancers and military recruits often experience this injury.
Typically, shin splint treatment involves rest, icing, a gradual return to activity and the use of orthotics. Patients can wear calf or leg compression sleeves to apply compression to the injured tissues for pain relief and healing.
Shin splints usually develop over time as an overuse or repetitive stress injury. They are usually not traceable to a specific event, as is usually the case with a traumatic injury.
As we have stated above, shin splints usually affects athletes in sports that require plenty of running, jumping or other high impact activities. The resulting shocks cause repeated trauma to the connective muscle tissue surrounding the tibia (the larger of the two shin bones). This in turn produces inflammation of the muscles, tendons and bone tissues surrounding the tibia.
Shin splints frequently develop after a sudden increase in the intensity of an athlete’s exercise routine. For example, athletes who suddenly increase their weekly number of training days or the length of training sessions may experience this injury.
In addition to sudden increases in training intensity, the following can increase the risk of experiencing shin splints:
Having pes planus (flat feet) or unusually rigid foot arches;
Training with poorly suited shoes (i.e.shoes without shock absorbing insoles) or worn out footwear;
Being an avid runner or dancer;
Military recruits appear to face a higher propensity to develop the condition. This may be due to the transition from relatively sedentary civilian life to spending long hours running, marching and getting into shape as a soldier.
Symptoms Of Shin Splints
As mentioned above, the primary symptom of shin splints is sharp leg pain, sometimes accompanied by swelling. The pain and swelling occur specifically along the medial (inner) edge of the tibia.
The tibia is the larger of the two bones in the lower leg. It is situated at the front of your lower leg, just ahead of the other bone (the fibula).
Shin splint pain can be either sharp or dull in nature. In addition, the patient may observe the following:
The pain can occur both during or after exercise;
Touching the painful area can further aggravate the pain.
Individuals who experience these symptoms should visit a doctor or sports medicine specialist for a formal examination and diagnosis.
Diagnosis & Treatment
To perform a diagnosis, a doctor will conduct a physical examination of the lower leg. He or she will need to identify the precise location of the pain and tenderness the patient is experiencing. It is important to identify all the problems that may be causing the pain. If other problems are not detected, it may be difficult to attain complete healing of the shin splints.
Other potential problems that can contribute to the leg pain may include tendinitis and stress fractures. Tendinitis in particular can produce a pain that is similar to that of shin splints. MRI scans can help to identify when tendinitis may also be present.
An MRI scan can also be effective in identifying stress fractures. These are small cracks in the tibia produced by the stress of hitting the ground repeatedly at high force.
Another injury that produces symptoms similar to shin splints is chronic exertional compartment syndrome. This is a result of intense exercise that significantly increases intramuscular pressure, resulting in severe leg pain. Contrary to shin splint pain, however, the pain of chronic exertional compartment syndrome tends to recede when the exercise is over. Unlike tendinitis and stress fractures, doctors usually diagnose this condition by measuring the pressure inside the leg before and after exercise sessions.
As with many overuse injuries, doctors will first attempt treatment using a conservative (non surgical) approach. This will usually include:
Recommending that the patient stop exercising for several weeks and rest instead;
If the patient really wants to exercise, he or she can switch temporarily to lower impact activities like swimming or cycling;
Applying ice or a cold compress to the lower leg. For example, 20-30 minutes at a time and at intervals of 2-3 hours can be effective in reducing pain and inflammation;
For additional relief of pain and inflammation, using a non steroidal anti inflammatory medication such as Advil;
Wearing shoes with greater shock absorption capabilities. Shoe inserts can also help by providing arch support to those with flattened foot arches;
Exercises to stretch the lower leg muscles can help them to recover more quickly.
Only resume training gradually. Stop as soon as you feel any pain and take another few days of rest before restarting exercise.
It is important to follow the doctor’s suggestions carefully. Individuals who fail to treat a shin splint injury properly can risk having the condition become permanent.
How To Prevent Shin Splints
Shin splints is a painful and unpleasant injury. So it is only natural to ask whether and how it can be prevented in the first place. The normal suggestions are:
Wear shoes with proper cushioning and arch support. This is particularly important when exercising or playing a sport that requires high impact activity like running or jumping;
Try to avoid sudden, sharp increases in your training intensity. If you want to increase your fitness level, increase training intensity gradually. Allow your body to adjust to each level before the next increase;
Cross train by mixing high impact activity like running with lower impact exercises like swimming. This will allow your lower leg muscles to temporarily “rest” without bringing your exercise program to a complete halt.