Shin splints are the most common cause of running injuries in both recreational and elite runners. The term “shin splints” refers to pain along the shinbone (tibia) — the large bone in the front of your lower leg.
Medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints are caused by repetitive stress on the shinbone and the connective tissues that attach the lower leg muscles to the bone, explains Dr. Eric Small, Pediatric and Adult Sports Medicine specialist with Westchester Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine and Medical Director of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine with Westchester Health Associates, in his recent blog. They often occur in athletes who have recently intensified or changed their training routines, causing the muscles, tendons and bone tissue to become overworked by the increased activity.
There are 3 different types of shin splints, involving varying levels of pain and severity.
- Medial tibial stress syndrome (typical shin splints). This involves pain at the bottom third of the shin. Typically the symptoms will go away after 4-7 days. In 10-20% of cases, shin splints do not go away and progress into a stress fracture.
- Tibia or shin stress fracture. It’s very important to distinguish shin splints from a stress fracture. For shin splints, treatment requires running less and performing strengthening exercises. With a stress fracture, there should be no running for 4-6 weeks. For both shin splints and stress fractures, a person should be riding a stationary bike, using an elliptical machine and/or swimming — low impact activities.
- A small number of people suffer from chronic shin splints (experiencing them more than 3-6 months a year). This is a condition called exertional compartment syndrome, a condition where there is elevated pressure in the compartment of the leg. This elevated level of fluid presses on nerves and blood vessels causing intense pain and cramping of the shin and calf.
How to treat shin splints
Shin splints often heal on their own but your doctor may want to see you run to look for problems. You may also need x-rays or bone scans to pinpoint fractures. If you’re experiencing shin splints, try these treatment suggestions:
- Rest your body. It needs time to heal.
- Ice your shin to ease pain and swelling, 20-30 minutes every 3-4 hours for 2-3 days, or until the pain is gone.
- Put orthotics in your shoes. Shoe inserts (custom-made or off the shelf) may help with arches that collapse or flatten when you stand up.
- Do range-of-motion exercises, if your doctor recommends them.
- Use a neoprene sleeve to support and warm your leg.
- Go to physical therapy to identify and treat issues in your legs or running mechanics that may be causing shin splints.
To read Dr. Small’s bog in full, click here.