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Shin Splints: What are They and What Should You Do About Them?


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If you do any type of exercise, including playing sports, you probably know about the dreaded shin split. The term “shin splint” is usually more of a catch-all term that people use to describe pain in the lower legs around the shinbone, or tibia. The pain is usually localized below the knee, and it could occur on the front or inner leg. People are who prone to shin splints include runners, dancers, and tennis players, but any person who works out or exercises, including athletes, can develop them.

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Most shin splints are caused by overuse, and often plague people who put their bodies through too much, too soon, or those who abruptly change the way they work out. Thankfully, shin splints are rarely serious, and they usually heal in a few weeks, but it is very important that you take care of yourself when you begin to develop them.

The Symptoms Associated with Shin Splints

Before getting into the symptoms of shin splints, it’s important to note that all shin pain doesn’t always indicate shin splints. In fact, there are two main conditions that people often mistake as shin splints:

The first condition is referred to as “compartment syndrome.”  This is usually felt on the outside part of the leg, though appears in the same general area as a shin splint. Basically, this is a swelling of the muscles in that area, which creates pressure. This, in turn, creates pain.

The second condition that people often mistake for shin splints is a stress fracture. This is a small, incomplete crack of the bone. As you can imagine, this is a much more serious injury than a shin splint, though it can occur in the same area.

To determine if the pain you are feeling is actually a shin splint and not a stress fracture, consider that pain. The main symptom of a shin splint is generalized pain. This means are large area of the leg hurts. With a stress fracture, however, there is a definitive area of pain, such as a sharp pain when pressing on a particular spot on the leg.  Another sign of a shin splint is pain when you try to flex your foot towards your head. Shin splints often are also sorer in the morning after waking, but stress fractures often feel better.

The Cause(s) of Shin Splints

Though we have already said that shin splints often occur due to overuse, there is more to it than that. In fact, there are usually several factors that go into it. For instance, overpronation, old shoes, poor stretching, or excessive stress on the leg can all cause shin splints. Generally, one leg, not both legs, are affected, and it’s usually the dominant leg. Typically, this is the same as your dominant hand, so if you are right-handed, you are probably right-footed, too.

The pain of shin splints is most common on the inside of the shin, but it can occur on the front and outside of the shin, too. People who have a greater chance are those who fit into one of the following:

  • Those who play sports
  • Those who often exercise or run on hard surfaces
  • Those who wear shoes that are old or worn
  • Those who have flat feet
  • Those who pronate, which means rolling the feet in, when walking or running
  • Those who increase difficulty of exercise too quickly
  • Those who are beginners at a sport that is high-impact

Diagnosing Shin Splints

Most of the time a diagnosis of shin splints is done by eliminating other factors and examining a person’s symptoms. A doctor might ask for your health history, the type of activity you do, and even want to see the shoes you wear when performing these activities. If a doctor suspects that the pain might be a stress fracture, they might do an MRI or X-ray. Otherwise, they will likely diagnose the issue as a shin splint.

The Treatment of Shin Splints

The treatment of shin splints will depend on several factors including the severity of the pain and your health. Many times, at-home treatments work very well. These include the following:

Decreasing Activity – Resting is the number one best thing you can do to treat a shin splint. Figure out what type of motion aggravates the pain, and then stop doing those motions for a week or two. It’s best to rest from all strenuous activity, if possible.

Icing the Shins – Doctors also recommend icing the leg a few times each day. You can use an ice pack or ice bath, whatever you prefer. The cold temperature helps to reduce both pain and swelling.

Pain Medication –  You can reduce the swelling and pain associated with shin splints with an over-the-counter pain reliever.

Massage – Consider massage to relax the muscles of the leg. Focus on the calves, the Achilles tendon, and other muscles around the shin.

Stretches – You should also try to stretch the area. Again, it’s important to focus on the ankles, calves, and Achilles tendon.

Kinesiology Tape – You might find relief with KT tape. Make sure you apply the tape correctly for the best results.

If you don’t find relief from these remedies, your doctor might suggest physical therapy. This not only can help to ease your pain but can help to make the leg muscles stronger. They might also suggest custom orthotics or arch supports, which help to absorb shock and realign the feet.

Avoiding and Preventing Shin Splints 

If you are at risk for shin splints, you can take some precautions to prevent them. For instance, if you are a runner, you should make sure that you are choosing shoes that are professionally sized and that absorb shock. If you are wearing shoes that have more than 250 miles of running on them, it’s probably time to invest in a new pair. You should also consider running on a track or treadmill instead of on a hard surface, like concrete. If you are new to running, you should take it slow and easy. Alternate your running with walking until your body gets used to the motions. Also, everyone should consider cross training along with their running regimen.

If you suspect that you have shin splints, it’s important to see your doctor and begin treatment as soon as possible. The earlier you begin, the better chance you have of reducing damage. It can take a month or more for shin splints to fully heal. You shouldn’t return to normal activity unless you are fully pain free, and when you do return, make sure to start slow.

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