Shin splints, medically known as tibial stress syndrome, are a frustratingly common hazard for many athletes. In fact, athletes and regular exercisers aren’t the only people who are sometimes afflicted with this dull, throbbing lower-leg pain; you may have suffered with this even after just running to catch a bus. Since shin splints are so common, making up 13 percent of injuries in runners, it only makes sense to prepare yourself by understanding what they are, how to prevent them and what you can do to speed up recovery if you do find yourself with tibial stress syndrome.
Symptoms & Causes
Is that pain in your calves shin splints or something potentially more serious? Typically, shin splints are identified by a dull, throbbing pain in the front of the lower leg which can surface during or after exercise. This pain can manifest itself either along the edges of your shinbone or deeper in the muscle. The area may even be sensitive to the touch. In some cases, the pain is constant. As with any persistent pain, you should consult a doctor to determine the exact cause.
Shin splints aren’t really a medical condition, but are themselves a symptom of another problem. Overuse, working your legs too hard, is one of the more common causes of shin splints and is fairly easy to correct. Training your lower legs too hard or too often can lead to swollen and irritated muscles which will create the annoying pain we call shin splints.
Flat feet and the resulting incorrect stride called overpronation is also a common cause of tibial stress syndrome. In these cases, the impact of your step flattens out the natural arch that your feet are supposed to have. This places an unexpected and abnormal type of stress of the muscles and tendons in your lower legs. Many people have flat feet and don’t realize it since the problem only become evident on hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt.
It’s also possible that your body is using shin splints to warn you that you’ve suffered stress fractures without knowing it. These tiny, hair-line cracks in your bones can occur totally unbeknownst to you and require medical attention. Again, if your shin splints persist and the pain doesn’t go away after self-treatment, see a doctor to be sure you don’t have any breaks.
It’s often been said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and shin splints are no different. This condition, even if the pain is minor, can slow you down and keep you from running for weeks. Fortunately, prevention is fairly simple.
Select running shoes that provide good padding and support a healthy stride. It is possible to have too much padding, though, which will encourage bad habits like heel-striking. Make sure that you’re landing on the middle of your foot and rolling forward onto the balls of your feet for push-off. If you do have flat feet, consider investing in some arch support inserts. Avoid running on inflexible, hard surfaces since these can wreak havoc on your arches.
Take your time getting started and use a long warm-up, lasting between 5 and 10 minutes. Don’t forget to stretch, either, focusing on your calves and ankles.
Finally, don’t push it. If you start to feel pain during your workout, stop running. Pushing through the pain will just cause more injury and possible make things worse in the long run.
The best possible thing for shin splints, regardless of the underlying cause, is one that runners and, indeed, all athletes dread: Rest.
While you’re giving your body time to repair the damage, though, there are things you can do to quicken the process. Primarily, try to reduce the inflammation by icing the shin for 20 minutes every 3 hours until the pain goes away. Anti-inflammatory painkillers like aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen can help but these medications come with side effects and should only been taken regularly if direct by your doctor.
Arch supports may provide a quick-fix to the problem, but start out gradually and don’t get over confident if the pain goes away immediately. Work your back up to your standard training intensity.
For more serious cases, your doctor may recommend physical therapy and various exercises.
Just because you’re being forced to rest your shins doesn’t mean you have to be totally inactive, though. Low-impact cardio exercises like cycling, swimming or elliptical training can keep you moving while limiting the stress on your lower legs.