Understanding Shin Splints and How to Avoid Them

Shin splints is a term for pain occurring anywhere along the shinbone, from ankle to knee. Formally known as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints are common in dancers, runners, and athletes.

If you lead an active lifestyle and you’re concerned about shin splints, getting to know its causes could help you maintain an appropriate exercise regime for avoiding this kind of pain.

Causes

Shin splints are associated with overusing your leg muscles. There’s no definitive explanation of the underlying causes, but a popular theory is that when you run too much, the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around the shinbone become inflamed.

Overuse can result from an increase in the intensity or amount of exercise you do, and this can lead to irritation and strain of the muscles, tendons, joints, and bones, or a stress reaction from the bone.

Poor running technique, such as allowing the ankle joint to roll inwards, can also contribute to shin splints. This is more likely if you have flat feet.

Other contributing factors could include:

  • calf-muscle tightness
  • running on uneven or sloping surfaces
  • excessive stress placed on one leg from running on curved roads, or always running in the same direction on a track
  • inappropriate or worn footwear
  • inadequate stretching or skipping a warm-up
  • being overweight

If you have osteoporosis or if you smoke, you might be more likely to develop shin splints.

Symptoms

You can experience sharp pain or throbbing with shin splints. A sure sign you have shin splints is pain when you apply pressure to your shinbone after running. You could have tenderness or soreness in the area, along with red and inflamed skin. You’re also likely to have pain when you bend your toes or ankle joint downwards.

In less severe instances, you might have an ache or stiffness along the inner side of your lower leg.

It’s important to note pain in your shins doesn’t necessarily mean you have shin splints. Compartment syndrome (muscle swelling in a closed compartment in your leg) and stress fractures (a more serious condition) have similar symptoms, and are often confused with shin splints.

Diagnosis and treatment

Your doctor or physio can give you a definitive diagnosis and guide you with a treatment plan. Usually your physio will be able to accurately diagnose you with an examination, but sometimes they might also perform an X-ray, bone scan, or other tests. These further tests can be used to rule out stress fractures and compartment syndrome.

Physiotherapy

If you’ve been diagnosed with shin splints, you should stop running or reduce your training level. Your physio might tailor a treatment program encompassing deep tissue massage, dry needling, joint mobilisation, and electrotherapy. They might also incorporate arch support taping or recommend orthotics. Ice or heat treatment could also be used to manage pain.

Self-care

You’ll heal faster if you rest as much as you can. Also try applying an ice pack for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, three to four times a day. Wear compression socks to support healthy blood flow and help with reducing inflammation.

If your physiotherapist says it’s okay, switch to low-impact activities like swimming to stay active while you recover. Alternatively, cross-training with riding or running in a swimming pool could support healing by taking the pressure off your shins.

Stretching

Gentle stretching could help you recover faster. Ask your physio about the best stretches to help with a quick recovery, and explore, with your physio’s guidance, using foam rollers or resistance band exercises.

Managing pain

Pain can be severe with shin splints. Consider using pain management options such as over-the-counter pain killers to minimise your suffering while you heal.

Wrap your leg

If your physiotherapist says it’s okay to continue running at some level, ask them about wrapping your leg. Wrapping your leg from above the ankle to below the knees helps bind your tendons against your shin to reduce stress.

Returning to exercise

Return to exercise gradually, or as advised by your physiotherapist. Start with less strenuous forms of exercise. If you run, check you’ve got appropriate footwear and run on soft, level surfaces. It’s a good idea to have two different pairs of shoes and alternate wearing them. This changes the stresses on your legs.

Preventing shin splints

Get into the habit of stretching your calves and Achilles as this could reduce the risk of developing shin splints. Talk to your physio about correcting any issues with your running stride or developing a regular stretching routine. You could also consider developing a strengthening muscle program for your lower legs.

Use shock-absorbing insoles in your running shoes and always throw out your running shoes before they wear out.

Successfully recovering from shin splints requires a good period of rest, or a reduction in training intensity. Consult your doctor or physiotherapist for a treatment program and take measures to reduce the risk of reinjury.

Disclaimer: The Herron blog is interested in general community wellbeing and information, and does not imply that Herron products should be used for serious ailments without the advice or recommendation from your healthcare practitioner.

All information presented on the Herron website is meant for general knowledge and never meant as a diagnosis of prescription. Please always contact your doctor for health related matters.