Shin splints are when the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around the tibia become inflamed. Also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints are a form of overuse injury, with pain typically manifesting around the inner shin. Shin splints are most common in runners, particularly when they begin to push themselves more during their workout.
Although the jury is still somewhat out on their exact cause, we’re not completely in the dark on this subject, so here are 4 things you need to know about shin splints.
While we may not have a perfect understanding of why shin splints are painful, we can say with some degree of certainty that it is most likely one of two problems, both of which are overuse injuries. The first is that the repeated expansion and contraction of the muscles in the legs could be causing them to develop microtears, which both lowers muscle strength and flexibility, and causes them to become inflamed.
Alternatively, it may be that the constant shockwaves generated by the foot hitting the ground causes a small crack in the bone to form, known as a stress fracture. It should also be noted that it is perfectly possible the pain is a result of a combination of these two factors.
Although certain factors such as age or pre-existing conditions can affect a person’s likelihood of developing shin splints, the best indicator for determining the level of risk is the type of exercise a person engages in. Runners are the most likely group to be affected, especially if they run on hard surfaces like concrete. After runners, hikers are the most vulnerable, as the uneven terrain and the posture we adopt when walking downhill put our legs under a lot of pressure. People who engage in long-distance walking are also at-risk, as are those who play sports with a lot of stopping and starting, such as football. An individual in any of these groups is also more vulnerable if they suddenly increase the length of intensity of their workout.
As with other overuse injuries, and as you might logically conclude, the most important step in treating shin splints is to stop exercising and get some rest. But as putting fitness completely on hold is not seen as a realistic option for many athletes, many choose to adopt the “ multifaceted relative rest” approach. This is where a patient will continue to work out, but stick to exercises where the legs are not used. At the same time, they will use a mix of painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and hot/cold packs to encourage the area to heal. The patient will then gradually return to exercises such as cycling and low-intensity running, which usually takes between 3 & 6 weeks.
But the most effective time to treat a shin splint will always be before it appears, and with some proper consideration, this isn’t too hard to achieve. There are two main factors to consider for this, the first being to ensure that you are using the correct footwear. This is important for any type of physical activity, but to prevent shin splints, you want thick shoes that will provide good stability and shock absorption.
On the other hand, not even the best shoes will protect an athlete that pushes themselves too far too fast, so it is important to make sure that any increases to the difficulty of your workout, whether that means speed or distance, are done gradually. A useful rule of thumb is never to increase the difficulty by more than 10% per week, so don’t add more than this to your distance, or try to shave more off your time.
Shin splints are far from an excruciating or life-altering condition, but they can be a real spanner in the works for people who take their fitness seriously. If you do develop shin splints, the multifaceted relative rest approach can help you keep your fitness levels up while you recover, but what you should remember from the experience is that you pushed yourself farther than you were ready to go and in future, you need to prepare more and listen to your body.