Calf and shin pain is common in athletes and non-athletes alike. The cause of pain and discomfort in the lower leg can be due to any number of factors including overuse of the muscles, poor footwear, poor circulation or trauma caused by an outside force. Some lower leg pain can be a minor setback if the cause is not severe, while other causes of leg pain may cause permanent damage if not properly treated.
Anatomy of the Lower Leg
The skeleton of the lower leg consists of two main bones, the tibia and fibula. The musculature of the lower leg includes muscles on the anterior and posterior sides of the bones. The posterior part of the leg is the calf, comprising the gastrocnemius, soleus and the plantaris. These muscles attach to the Achilles tendon, which then attaches to the talus, or heel bone. These muscles perform extension of the calf. The anterior, or front, part of the leg is made of the tibialis anterior and posterior, which sits directly above the tibia, the peroneus longus, peroneus brevis, extensor digitorum longus and extensor hallucis longus. Together, these muscles help in foot flexion and extension. The lower leg is divided into different compartments according to muscle grouping and function.
Types of Lower Leg Pain
Shin splints are recognized by a sharp pain or throbbing of the shin bone. This pain can run up and down the border of the shin bone or be centralized in a specific area. Achilles tendinitis is pain in the lower backside of the leg categorized by swelling, stiffness and weakness. Calf muscle strain can be recognized by pain and weakness of the calf. Compartment syndrome, which is typically experienced by distance runners, is commonly mistaken for shin splints. It is characterized by cramping and the inability to continue exercising after roughly 20 minutes.
Shin splints, or medial tibial stress syndrome, is irritation of the outer surface of the shin bone. Achilles tendinitis and inflammation of other tendons can sometimes be caused by fatigue or overuse of the muscles and tendons. Factors like poor knee and hip posture, overpronation of the foot and being overweight can also create additional pressure and strain on the muscles, disrupting proper function.
Compartment syndrome occurs when the muscles, blood vessels and nerves become too big for the individual compartment, causing blood vessels to constrict and preventing blood and oxygen from reaching the muscles.
Taping is a popular technique used for athletes, which helps to align joints and support muscles that may be tearing away from the bone or ligaments and to prevent further injury. Taping can be done for conditions such as shin splints and inflammation of the Achilles tendon. In some instances, pain relief can be experienced by simply taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication. For acute pain in the shins or calves, resting and elevating the leg in addition to icing the leg for twenty minutes and compressing the injured area with an ACE bandage can constrict blood vessels and reduce swelling or pain.
Further Treatment and Prevention
Leg pain caused by the uneven pulling away of or tearing of the tendons and bones can sometimes be alleviated by performing calf stretches that lengthen the calf and anterior leg muscles. In other cases where the posterior leg muscles are significantly stronger than the anterior muscles (or vice versa), strength training exercises using stretch bands or stability boards can help strengthen and balance the muscles. In cases where leg pain is due to overpronation, insoles can be inserted into the shoes to correct the direction and amount that the feet roll forward.