What are Shin splints?
“Shin splints” is an umbrella term that simply means “shin pain”. A bit like “back ache”, it doesn’t specify one exact condition or injury. Shin splints can be very painful and affect your training to the point where it has to cease while you recover and it can certainly get worse the longer you leave it.
The main symptom of shin splints is shin pain, right down the front of the lower part of your leg that worsens when you dorsiflex the ankle (drawing your toes up away from the floor). The muscle that you see tensing when you do this is called your tibialis anterior and that is usually the area that you will feel the pain.
The pain can be dull like DOMS that you can put up with or it could be a sharp severe pain that stops you in your tracks. It may worsen with exercise and usually decreases and subsides with rest.
The usual causes of shin splints include:
- A sudden increase or change in your physical activity such as taking up running or a new class/sport
- Increase in bodyweight which puts additional strain on your leg muscles.
- You may have tight calves or Achilles tendons. Think of these as the opposite force to your shin muscle the tibialis anterior. So as your toes lift up, your tibialis anterior has to contract and your calf muscles relax-as your toes point, your calves contract and your tibialis anterior relaxes. If your calves or Achilles tendons are tight your poor tibialis anterior has to pull harder in order to complete the movement which puts a lot of strain on it and therefore causes pain either at the time of exercising or the day after.
- Incorrect footwear-you may need an insole to stop over-pronation of the foot (flat feet) or simply need a new pair with more support. Your tibialis anterior not only dorsiflexess the foot it also inverts it. (think, flex your foot up and then try to lift the big toe higher than the rest of your toes). Likewise with the tight calves, if you have a flat arch, your tibialis anterior has to work harder to lift that area of the foot up because it has further to travel than with someone who has ideal arches.
Most cases of shin splints are easily treated very much the same as DOMS. You simply rest as best as you can. You can try ice or pain relief and on occasion a little bit of gentle activity such as a slow walk can help too.
If you want to avoid developing shin splints you can try the following:
- Start a new exercise regimen slowly and build up gradually
- Make sure you warm up thoroughly before exercising so the muscles and joints are supple enough to withstand the load.
- Make sure you have good quality, supportive footwear along with arch insoles if needed from a podiatrist.
- Weight loss can help with many exercise issues such as shin splints or plantar fasciitis.
- Strength and flexibility exercises such as Kinetic Revolution’s Heel Walk or this less conspicuous exercise.
- Stretching your calves and achilles tendons may help. There are many demonstrations on youtube, here is a photo of me stretching my calf muscles:
- Sports massage can also help relieve shin splint pain as well as prevent it developing. For example, having a massage therapist work into your calf muscles, peroneals and achilles it can ease off the tension that your poor tibialis anterior has to work against to contract and lift the toes when performing a simple move such as allowing you to strike the floor with your heel first while walking.
If you are unsure always visit your GP. Other conditions can on occasion feel similar to shin splints such as:
- Intermittent claudication (where the blood vessels are partially blocked to the lack of oxygen causes leg pain-commonly effects the calf muscles during exercise)
- Compartment syndrome
- Stress fracture, injury, strain or sprain.
Do you suffer from shin splints? What causes yours? What do you find works best for you when you’re recovering? I’d love to read your comments below.