There’s nothing quite like a driving pain just behind the shin bone to bring an athlete to their knees.
But shin splints are, unfortunately, one of the most common sports-related conditions that an athlete can contend with.
The good news is that they’re generally easy to treat as long as treatment is not delayed. Most remedies can be applied at home and recovery often takes a little under two months. But before shin splints can be effectively treated – or prevented – their causes have to be understood. And that’s where we come in.
Shin splints develop from overuse and increased strain on the lower legs.
There is no one single injury that leads to shin splints.
They instead develop when a person suddenly increases their training level. Dancers, gymnasts, runners, and military recruits are among those most affected by shin splints. And, in all cases, the culprit is a sudden increase in demand on a person’s lower legs.
A few specific forms of exercise also put people at a higher risk for shin splints. Any exercise with a lot of sudden stops and starts, such as basketball or dancing, increases an athletes shin splint risk. Runners who prefer hills are also at a higher risk, as are people with flat feet or rigid arches. Worn out shoes and hard route surfaces also increase the risk a runner will develop shin splints.
The symptoms of shin splints are fairly straight-forward and easy to identify.
They may develop in either leg or, in more unusual cases, both legs at the same time. Shin splints typically present with a sharp pain along the long bone in the lower legs.
Shin splints are also referred to as “medial tibial stress syndrome”, as the bone affected is the tibia.
People suffering from shin splints will first notice that their shins seem swollen. They will begin to experience sharp pain in their legs while exercising, though the pain will go away when they rest their legs. Pain will become constant if the condition is not treated. Some people report that the pain is a burning sensation while others refer to it as a soreness, a tenderness, or a stabbing pain. Regardless of what the pain feels like, athletes should consider the possibility of shin splints if they develop lower legs pain.
It is important that athletes treat shin splints as soon as they detect the condition.
If left untreated, shin splints can grow worse.
Some cases can actually become so severe that they lead to stress fractures which, in turn, can lead to fully broken bones.
The good news is that home care is usually enough to treat most shin splint cases. Athletes may want to see a medical professional to confirm the diagnosis before they begin treatment, however. Doctors typically diagnose shin splints through a survey of the patient’s activity level and demographics, a physical exam, and – on occasion – x-rays.
So let’s go over what you can do at home and what to expect if home remedies just aren’t cutting it.
As with most running-related injuries, the RICE method is key to the treatment of shin splints.
The RICE method breaks down as Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation, though elevation is not as important in this situation as the other three.
Treated properly, shin splints may heal enough to get the runner back on their feet within 2-4 weeks. It may take 3-6 months for the issue to resolve completely, however. If the home remedies listed here do not resolve the issue, it is important to seek a medical professional’s help.
The RICE Method
Rest – Anyone who develops shin splints should let the damaged area rest for 1-2 weeks. This requires them to avoid repetitive activities that put a direct strain on the lower leg, such as dancing and running. A better option is to avoid all lower-body workouts for the first two weeks and to limit walking to only what is necessary. If the athlete is pain-free after two weeks, they can ease back into working out with low-impact options such as cycling or swimming.
Ice – Cold packs and ice will reduce swelling which, in turn, should reduce pain. Whatever method of “icing” is preferred, it should be done several times a day with each session lasting no more than 20 minutes. Please note that ice should never be applied directly to the skin. Direct ice application can burn the skin and cause its damage before the cold can help the inflamed muscles.
Compression – Compression reduces swelling through the reduction of blood to an injured area. Soft elastic bandages are best, and compression sleeves are a close second. They should be used for no more than thirty minutes at a time and can be used several times a day. You can also take a look at our own brand of calf compression sleeves, which have been designed specifically to help with this issue.
Elevation – Unlike most running injuries, elevation does little to help shin splints. It may reduce swelling by reducing blood flow to the area. Compression and ice, however, are much more certain methods.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs are excellent additions to any shin splint home-care routine. Most come with mild side effects, however, so athletes may want to consult a doctor before using them. It is also important to rest even if the medication reduces a person’s pain. Resuming exercise too soon will only make the condition last longer and may make it worse.
At the Doctor’s
Professional or competitive athletes may want to seek a professional diagnosis before they begin home treatments for shin splints.
And, for some people, that is the only medical attention they will need until a doctor clears them to resume training.
In some cases, however, a doctor will need to be more involved.
Shin splint sufferers should see a doctor if the RICE Method and anti-inflammatory drugs don’t reduce their pain. Some cases of shin splints may become red and hot, which is another warning sign to see a doctor.
Doctors can also refer patients to various key specialists. Athletes with flat feet or rigid arches tend to develop shin splints more easily. A doctor can prescribe custom supportive footwear or refer them to specialists for more involved care. Severe cases of shin splints may require the attention of physical therapists, most of which also require a doctor’s referral.
Extreme cases of shin splints require surgery. These are so rare as to be almost unheard-of. If an athlete thinks they have exhausted all other treatment options, they will have to talk to a doctor about moving on to surgery.
But no one actually wants to be on the operating table. So let’s discuss ways you can avoid all of this from the getgo.
There are several ways that athletes can prevent shin splints. These solutions are not “one size fits all” and it may take a little trial and error before athletes find a combination that avoids pain completely.
Proper equipment and form are the best ways to avoid shin splints. Supportive shoes and, if necessary, custom insoles ensure that the athlete works on a solid foundation. Athletes can improve their form through video analysis of their playing or running. And they should slowly implement any new training they want to undertake.
Certain forms of resistance and strength training can also help prevent shin splints. These training options usually involve strengthening the muscles of the lower leg while increasing their flexibility and resilience. Stretching before and after workouts can loosen up the muscles and reduce the risk of several workout-related injuries, shin splints included.
A few other prevention options include barefoot running, exercising on a softer surface, and icing the lower legs after a workout for twenty to reduce swelling. These options will not work for some people, but they may be key for others.
In the end, it’s all about knowing your body, and reacting to it’s needs. Remember, your health is your wealth, and nothing’s more important than safety–except maybe having a good time.