Generally speaking, shin splints refers to pain below the knee on the front inside or outside of the leg. Usually, what the term refers to is known as Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome: inflammation of the tendons, tissue, and muscles around your tibia.
“Shins splints are a general term for pain on the shin. There can be many different diagnoses for shin splints. The more serious diagnosis could be compartment syndrome, tibial stress fracture or reaction. Or, more likely and less serious—medial tibial stress syndrome or medial tibial traction periostitis,” says Dr. Emily Kiberd, Chiropractor, certified yoga instructor, and owner of the Urban Wellness Clinic.
While pain in the shin area is usually a minor injury, what you’re experiencing could also be a more serious injury (like a stress fracture). The only way to know for sure is to see your doctor. “The best way and gold standard to rule out a stress fracture from shin splints would be an MRI of the lower leg bone,” says Dr. Kiberd.
The cause of shin splints is easily explained—too much, too soon. Too much running or pounding when you’re body isn’t prepared for it. “Shin splints is most common with running and jumping athletes who increase their training with too many miles, too much load, or too quickly. This puts pressure, strain, and overuse on the muscles and causes imbalance. This can lead to pulling of the muscles on the bone,” Says Dr. Kiberd. “This doesn’t only affect the professional athlete. Novices starting to get into running who may not have the optimal running mechanics, shoes that do not fit their running style, or who are running too much too soon can be affected.”
Are shin splints preventable?
Shin splints are (applause) completely avoidable.
That said, there are several factors to consider when it comes to prevention. You’ve got to take into account your natural running style (or mechanics), the shoes you wear, your training, and your muscle tone.
Do you know what your running style is? Do you pronate? Or supinate? “People who over pronate (rolling inwards too much with a splaying of the foot and flattening of the arch) and who over supinate (the foot rolls to the outside of the arch too much during the time the foot is in contact with the ground) when the foot is in midstance can both cause increased stress on the muscles around the tibia,” says Dr. Kiberd. “Getting your gait assessed would be the best way to avoid this problem.” A running coach, doctor, physical therapist, and some running stores can help you with an assessment.
The shoes you wear need to complement the mechanics of your running; otherwise, you’re going to work against yourself. This causes pain and possibly injury. “We see some people who are wearing a lower drop, barefoot style of shoe, but hardcore heel striking, and then they get shins splints. We’ve seen patients wearing super cushioned Hokas with a more barefoot style gait get shins splints,” says Dr. Kiberd. “So just make sure the shoe fits the gait style to avoid shin splints; again get assessed!”
It bears repeating: don’t over train. “We recommend increasing your mileage by 10 percent per week to avoid muscle strain and shin splints,” says Dr. Kiberd.
Another thing to keep in mind during training: your current muscle tone. “Typically the muscles around the shins are tight and have poor flexibility. The muscles up the kinetic chain (such as the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and the deep intrinsic core) are weak,” says Dr. Kiberd. “Your local chiropractor or physical therapist can assess and give you stretching and strengthening exercises to correct this imbalance.”
You can find a nice collection of preventative stretches and exercises here.
If you already have shin splints, what does treatment look like?
Once you’ve been diagnosed with shin splints (aka: doctors have ruled out a more serious issue), you’ll want to give your body around two weeks to recover. Rest, ice, and an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory food and medicine can help.
Dr. Kiberd’s recommendations:
- Try Active Release Technique, the gold standard in soft tissue release to decrease inflammation of the tight muscles
- Strengthen up weak muscles
- Wear compression socks to help push out inflammation
- Take a 10-14 day break from running to give your legs a rest
- Get your running shoes assessed by a professional
If you stick to those tips, you should be back to pain-free exercise using the Aaptiv personal training app in no time!