How to Treat Shin Splints

Glorious shin splints, the one issue every runner faces at some point. Known for its sharp stabbing to the inside of the shin. It’s far from fun to deal with. If this describes the pain you’ve been dealing with, or have dealt with. Here’s how to treat shin splints to help you get back to being active while also being pain-free.

That Pain May Not Be Shin Splints:

Occasionally a pain in your shin can be more than just shin splints after all “shin splints” is a catch-all term for any pain felt in the lower front half of your leg. It could be a couple of other things. It could possibly be Compartment Syndrome which requires immediate medical attention due to the seriousness of it. However, it could just be a stress fracture, which is less serious but also requires a check-up and some much-needed rest. Here’s some help to distinguish which it might be.

Compartment Syndrome:

If the pain you’re experiencing is on the outside of your lower leg it might be compartment syndrome. Compartment Syndrome is swelling of the fascia that surrounds one or more of the compartments in your lower leg. This then restricts blood flow and increases pressure on the nerve. Causing pain, possibly numbness in the leg and foot, and muscles may not function normally depending on the severeness. Special techniques are used to diagnose this and measure the pressure in the lower leg.

How do you tell if it’s this or just shin splints?

  • Leg Pain
  • Unusual nerve sensations
  • Muscle Weakness (depending on severity)

Stress Fracture:

Another possibility is a stress fracture (incomplete crack in the bone), this of course is far more severe than shin splints, but less than compartment syndrome. A bone scan is needed to diagnose the stress fracture. However, there are some things you can do at home to tell if you need to have a bone scan done.

Press your fingertip along your shin, if you find a definite spot that causes sharp, and I mean sharp pain, it’s a sign of a stress fracture. The pain of shin splints is more generalized.

Another sign of a stress fracture is the pain will be gone or minimal in the morning, since the bone has had all night to rest. However, shin splints will usually feel worse in the morning since the soft tissues have tightened overnight.

Plus shin splints tend to be the most painful during dorsiflexion (foot flexed toward ankle). If dorsiflexion hurts, it’s probably shin splints.

What if it’s neither?

If neither of these describes your pain, then it’s probably just shin splints, but before we discuss treatment, we have to understand the area that shin splints effect… Your calves and shins.

Understanding the Calf and Shin to Prevent Injury:

Thankfully your calves and shins don’t have the complex construction or delicate reputation of your knees and feet. However, they aren’t indestructible either.

Calves: The only way to understand and treat something, is to fully understand it. Did you know that your calves lift your heel about 1,500 times per mile, and that your shins support the arch, raise the toes, and absorb impact. Plus, because the propulsive motion of running, works the rear of the lower leg more so than the front. Muscle imbalances are extremely common among runners, and it’s because of muscle imbalances I’ve been sidelined most of the year from running.

You’ve probably also heard this about your hamstrings and quadriceps, and the same applies with your calves and shins. As a result, runners typically have overworked, tight calf muscles, and weak shin muscles. This can lead to four specific lower-leg injuries: calf pulls, shin splints, stress fractures, and compartment syndrome.

Shins: Pain down the front of your lower leg is likely due to shin splints – or medial tibial stress syndrome as medical practitioners prefer to call it. Typically shin splints are known as a beginner’s injury, but shin splints can effect anyone, especially those who overtrain. They’re caused by degeneration of the muscles or tissues that attach to the tibia (shin bone).

Anterior shin splints affect the tibias anterior muscle (AKA the outer side of the tibia), which is what keeps your toes from dragging when you take a step and lowers the forefoot to the ground.

Posterior shin splints indicate irritation of the posterior tibias muscle (inner side of the tibia), which slows downs the pronation of the foot after heel-strike.

What Are Shin Splints:

Shin splints as we’ve learned are just a catch-all phrase for a number of things that cause pain in the lower leg. The medical name for shin splits is Medial Tibial Syndrome. In the mildest case, shin splints are the inflammation of the fascia (connective tissue) that covers and connects the muscles of the lower leg to the bone (the tibia). However worst case scenario, the fascia is under so much stress that it actually separates from the tibia, which is very painful and can involve a rather slow healing progress.

What Causes Them:

There are two leading causes of the dreaded shin splints. First, too much impact on the lower leg, which is typically caused by heel-striking. Second, is overuse of the lower leg while running. Overuse injuries primarily happen when you push off with your toes to propel yourself forward.

(Both of these causes are improper running form, which I’ll talk about in another post soon.)

To reduce the amount of shock to your legs, it’s important to eliminate any heel-striking while you run. A heel-strike happens when you run with your body upright, and reach forward with your legs – commonly called over-striding – causing your feet to land in front of you.

The only way to eliminate heel-striking is by leaning forward from the ankles as you run and allowing your foot to strike underneath or even just slightly behind your body. Allowing you to land on your mid-foot and your legs to swing back as soon as your feet hit the ground, eliminating any heel-strike.

Overuse of the lower legs: This is caused by pushing off with your toes, which in turn causes the calf and shin muscles to overwork. Anytime your body weight is being supported by your toes, your calves and shins are required to take on more work than they are designed to.

How to Treat Shin Splints:

Doctors recommend that you rest your legs to give the overworked shin muscles time to heal. Swimming is recommended, or another form of exercise that doesn’t require your lower legs.

A remedy I use is icing the shin for 15 minutes, three to four times a day to reduce the inflammation. Periodically elevating your legs can help some too.

This technique can help aid the healing of your shins. However, in all honesty, they only provide momentary relief because they don’t rid of the cause of the problem. Which is either overuse or impact to the lower legs.

My recommendation would be to get your gait analyzed at a specialty running store, replace your running shoes, and constantly check your running form while running.

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Ally Gonzales is the founder & editor-in-chief of RunningSoleGirl. Along with blogging she is also juggling attending college and majoring in Exercise and Sports Science with a Sports Management minor.

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