The Ins and Outs of Shin Splints

Your shins may seem like a strange place to experience severe, aching pain, but this pain is actually fairly common after rigorous exercise. Runners, dancers, and military recruits are the most common groups to experience shin splints. But anyone who’s done too many jumping jacks or run farther than normal has experienced the throbbing pain. Here’s what you need to know about shin splints and how you can decrease the pain:

What Are the Symptoms of Shin Splints?

Most people feel pain along the inner part of the lower leg. The pain tends to be concentrated around the edge of the tibia (shinbone), right where the muscles attach to the bone. The pain can be characterized as a dull throbbing feeling or a sharp, razor-like pang. Some people experience mild swelling in the painful area and have more pain when they touch the sore spot.

In extreme cases, shin splints include stress fractures along the tibia.

What Are the Causes of Shin Splints?

Shin splints can occur both during and after exercise.

Shin splints are caused by stress on the connective tissue between your calf muscles and shinbone. Most often, overuse or a sudden change in your exercise regimen contribute to extra stress. If you exercise more days each week, go longer distances, or exercise more intensely than you normally do, you could get shin splints. Repetitive motions like running and jumping are the most common culprits of shin splints.

Shin splints can also be caused by flat arches, when the weight of a step makes your arch collapse, or by using worn out or improper footwear during exercise.

You are more likely to get shin splints if:

  • You are just beginning an intensive running program
  • You play sports on hard surfaces like basketball and tennis courts
  • You play sports that require sudden starts and stops
  • You are in military training
  • You have high arches or flat feet

How Can You Treat Shin Splints?

Once you have shin splints, you should follow these steps to alleviate the pain:

1. Rest. You should listen to your body and not engage in strenuous exercise until your muscles feel better.

2. Apply ice to your shin. The cold will ease the pain and reduce the swelling. You can apply ice for 20 to 30 minutes every 3 or 4 hours until the pain is gone.

3. Use painkillers. You should only take anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen to relieve pain and swelling. Since these drugs can result in ulcers and greater chance of bleeding, you should only use them occasionally unless your doctor gives you other instructions.

4. Enroll in physical therapy. If you consistently get shin splints or have severe pain, it would help to have a professional teach you better exercise techniques and help you heal.

5. Elect for surgery. If you have stress fractures in your shin bone, your doctor may suggest surgery in rare cases.

What Are the Signs Your Shin Splints Have Healed?

You’ll know your shin splints have fully healed when your legs are just as strong, flexible, and pain-free as before. For extreme shin splints, your x-rays should show that all stress fractures are fully healed. You should be able to jump, sprint, and move easily without experiencing any pain.

How Do You Avoid Getting Shin Splints?

Luckily, shin splints are not a natural result of exercise. They can be prevented by adhering to safe practices before, during, and after exercise.

1. Wear proper footwear. Athletes should choose shoes that are appropriate for their sport. Runners should change their shoes every 560 to 800 kilometers (350 to 500 miles).

2. Use arch supports. If you have flat feet, using proper orthotics in your shoes will prevent shin splints.

3. Warm up. Stretch the muscles in your legs and start out slowly before you move into rigorous exercise.

4. Cross train. Alternate more impact-heavy exercises with sports that put less impact on your shins. For example, walking, biking, and swimming are excellent low-impact activities.

5. Work up to your goals. Since shin splints are caused by sudden changes in time and intensity of exercise, it’s best to slowly work up to your ideal exercise regimen. If you never exercise, don’t suddenly run for an hour a day; your shins won’t forgive you quickly.

6. Work in strength training. Use exercises like toe raises, leg presses, and other lower leg exercises to strengthen your calf muscles. You can also hold weights to slowly increase the difficulty.

To find out more about shin splints and other foot problems, check out regular updates from our blog.