Shin Splints: Why They Happen and What You Can Do About Them

Medically known as Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome but commonly referred to as “shin splints”, this condition can be a real pain — literally! Shin splints are pain sensations in the shin bone, the largest bone in your leg area. The pain typically happens while you are exercising or engaging in some type of physical activity, and it can range from a mild ache to extreme shooting pains that can send you to the sidelines immediately.

The Symptoms

When you have a shin splint, you will generally know it right away. It often starts with a shooting pain that runs down the shin bone. The pain will often come and go, usually in direct correlation with the physical activity you are doing at the moment.  Shin splints may also appear as a dull ache in the shin bone. Some mild to moderate swelling of the lower leg area may accompany the pain of shin splints.

The Causes

Shin splints are typically caused by impact to and pressure on the leg, especially an unaccustomed or extreme impact. The shinbones may develop shin splits as they try to absorb the impact of physical activity, especially vigorous physical activities. The muscles in the lower leg, including the Tibialis anterior, Gastrocnemius, Extensor digitorum longus, and Soleus muscles, work as the support system for the shinbone but may not be able to absorb enough impact to avoid the development of shin splints. According to Dr. William C. Shiel, MD, another reason for shin splints may be a “sudden increase in distance or intensity of a workout schedule.” Additionally, weakened muscles in the ankle area or an overly tight Achilles tendon can cause shin splints.

Who Is At Risk?

Many athletes or people who regularly engage in sports develop shin splints due to the regular pressure to the lower legs. For example, runners, soccer players, tennis players, and basketball players often suffer from shin splints due to the “stop and start” nature of their sport as well as the long periods of running.

Shin Splint Treatment

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Most cases of shin splints can be treated with rest, ice and other self-care measures.” These “self-care  measures” can include scaling back exercise routines temporarily to allow shin splints to heal and wearing footwear that is specially designed to absorb a great deal of impact.

Preventing Shin Splints

Probably the best way to prevent shin splints, especially if you find yourself prone to them with any sort of frequency, is to start doing some ‘ankle mobility work’. One exercise in-particular, toe-lifts, can encompass most of your specific focus on ankle mobility and the muscles that absorb the impact of such things as running. To perform them, start in a seated position with your feet flat on the ground. Keeping your heels planted and using them as a pivot, raise your toes toward the sky and lift the front of your feet off the ground until your foot is at around a 50 to 60 degree angle with the ground. With your heels remaining planted, guide your foot back to being flat on the ground. Start by doing these as fast as you can until you hit failure…that’s one set. Do 3 sets per session, around three times a week. Work up to 3 sets of 60+ seconds and shin splints should become a thing of your past.

To help prevent yourself from getting shin splints after specific runs or cardio sessions, you should always start with a full, active and passive warm-up. After around 10 ten minutes of walking, riding a stationary bike or training on an elliptical machine (anything low-impact really) take a little time to stretch before you really get into your work-out, focusing on stretches that involve bends at the hips and knees. For the same effect if using a short HIIT cardio routine skip the stretching but make sure your warm-up includes a build-up of intensity rather than getting right to it.

Wear high quality footwear that has excellent arch support and padding, preferably shoes that have “shock absorbers” built in to them. Finally, you can prevent shin splints by being smart about where you exercise: Avoid very hard surfaces like concrete where possible.

If you start to feel pain in your lower legs, stop what you are doing immediately. This can help to avoid a full-blown shin splint. Give yourself a chance to rest and stretch before you get back out there. Shin splints can indeed be a real pain, but fortunately they can be avoided in many cases.

(P.S. – Thanks to @BornFitness  and @EternalScrewUp and their brief Twitter conversation for giving me the spark to write this article.)


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