Repetitive activities can lead to a painful inflammation of muscles, tendons and periosteum of the tibia. This condition is called medial tibial stress syndrome, or shin splints. An overuse injury, shin splints are caused by over-stressing the shinbone and the connective tissues that attach the muscles to the bone. Shin splints are a common, running-related injury, and although they can be painful, they are preventable and easily treated.
Shin splints typically present as a pain, soreness or tenderness along the calf or the inner part of the tibia. This may be coupled with swelling. The scope of these symptoms depends greatly on how much stress and damage the lower legs have suffered. In the beginning, the pain may only occur at the ending and beginning of a workout. However, if the lower legs do not get an opportunity to recover, the pain may become continuous and localized. In severe cases, shin splints may progress from a stress reaction to an actual stress fracture.
Shin splints typically develop after a sudden increase of a workout’s physical intensity. This could mean running longer distance, on hills, on a harder surface or increasing the frequency of runs. Runners with high ridge arches and those with flat feet tend to experience more pounding, making them prone to shin splints. Poorly fitting shoes or shoes that have little padding to absorb shock can also increase the risk of developing shin splints.
The most effective treatment for shin splints is rest. The amount of rest required for the lower legs to heal is dictated by the severity of the injuries. If the pain is mild, simply backing off the intensity and frequency of workouts may be enough. If the pain interferes with daily activities, however, it can be necessary to stop all high impact activities for several weeks. Once ready to return to training, it is important to start slowly and to thoroughly stretch before and after each workout.
Anti-inflammatory medications, cold packs, and compression wraps are treatments that can help decrease swelling and promote healing. Icing the affected shin for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day and elevating the shin above the heart can help reduce the swelling. In more extreme cases, a compression bandage may need to be worn in order to keep the swelling down. Over the counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen can also be beneficial for reducing pain and swelling.
The best prevention for shin splints is to monitor the amount of stress placed on the lower legs. Cross-training with low-impact activities such as cycling or swimming can increase the amount of recovery time between runs. Choosing a properly fitting shoe that supports the foot and absorbs shock is essential to avoiding shin splints. It is recommended that shoes get replaced every 350 to 500 miles because their ability to absorb shock decreases as they are worn. Running on softer surfaces, such as dirt or grass rather than concrete, can also decrease the impact on lower legs.