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Shin splits, also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, is an injury that refers to pain along the inner edge of the shinbone (tibia). Shin splints typically develop after physical activity, especially running, hiking, or jumping routines. Any vigorous sports activity can bring on shin splints, especially if you are just starting a fitness program. It is critical to not ignore your symptoms, and start to address them before they become too debilitating.

What causes shin splints?

The pain of shin splints is a result of excessive force on the shin bone (tibia) and the tissues attaching the muscles to the shin bone. This force causes the muscles to swell and increases the pressure against the bone. This results in pain and inflammation. Additionally, shin splints can also be caused by stress reactions to bone fractures. Constant force and pounding can cause tiny cracks in the shin bone. If the body is not given adequate rest to heal, the tiny cracks can result in a complete fracture/stress fracture.

Who is at risk for shin splints?

Various activities and physical attributes can put you at risk of getting shin splints. Risk factors include:

  • an anatomical abnormality (such as flat foot syndrome)
  • muscle weakness in the thighs or buttocks
  • lack of flexibility, improper training techniques, running downhill, running on a slanted surface or uneven terrain, running on hard surfaces like concrete, using inappropriate or worn-out shoes for running or working out, participating in sports that have fast stops and starts (like soccer or downhill skiing)

Shin splints are also more likely to occur when your leg muscles and tendons are tired. Women, people with flat feet or rigid arches, athletes, military recruits, and dancers all have an increased likelihood of developing shin splints.

How are shin splints treated?

We have put together our top seven tips to start treating a shin splint injury. Read on for tips to avoid shin splints from progressing:

  1. Rest your body. It needs time to heal.
  2.  Ice your shin to ease pain and swelling. Do it for 20-30 minutes every 3 to 4 hours for 2 to 3 days, or until the pain is gone.
  3. Take anti-inflammatory painkillers. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin, will help with pain and swelling. Check with your doctor to see which pain killer is appropriate for you.
  4. Wear good shoes. Shoes with good arch support, and treads are critical. Improper footwear is a cause of shin splints.
  5. Do range-of-motion exercises- ankle circles, calf raises, knee bends.
  6. Wear compression stockings. These can help decrease inflammation in the lower leg.
  7. Go to physical therapy to identify and treat issues in your back or legs or running mechanics that may be causing shin splints. A therapist can also help ease the pain and guide your return to sport. If shin splints do not resolve with tip 1-6, there is likely a muscle imbalance predipsoing you to this injury. A physical therapist can guide you through a rehabilitation program to get you and keep you pain free. Rare cases need surgery, such as if you have a severe stress fracture that caused your shin splints.

Shin splints are an injury that can progress, and can keep you from doing what you love to do, if not managed and identified quickly. Do yourself a favour and get treated before your shin splints prevent you from being active- you will be thankful you did!

Charlotte Anderson
Physiotherapist
ALPHA Health Services