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Shin Splints

Understanding Shin Splints

Shin splints or Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (MTSS) is a term used to describe a pain or inflammation of the muscles, tendons and bone tissue on the front of your lower leg below the knee and above the ankle.

The pain typically occurs along the inner border of the tibia, where muscles attach to the bone.

Why does shin splints occur?

Shin splints are a common exercise-related problem which typically develop following physical activity. Any vigorous sports activity can bring on shin splints, especially if you are just starting a fitness program but it is particularly found in any running-based sports which involve multi-directional movements such as AFL, netball, basketball, and soccer. The rapid change of movement and direction can place a significant amount of stress on the joints, muscles, and ligaments of the lower limbs.

Although it is a common complaint among athletes, anyone who is physically active is vulnerable to shin splints. Shin splints can occur after a sudden change in physical activity. These can be changes in frequency, such as increasing the number of days you exercise each week, changes in duration and intensity, such as running longer distances or uphill and changes in running surface.

It is also commonly associated with inadequate supporting or worn-out footwear, abnormal foot biomechanics such as over-pronation (having flat feet) that causes the tibia to twist and the muscles in the lower leg to overstretch; or abnormally rigid arches that cause poor shock absorption and increased damage (micro-fractures) within the bone. Muscle weakness or poor functioning of the muscles that act to dorsiflex the ankle is also a factor that can cause shin splints.

It is crucial to determine the underlying cause of your shin splints by a health professional to prevent further complications. The ongoing inflammation of the muscle that causes the shin pain can irritate the bone and lead to a worse condition such as a stress fracture.

What are the signs and symptoms of shin splints?

The most common symptom of shin splints is the pain over the front part of your lower leg. Such pain:

  • are generally described as sharp pain, dull aching, throbbing and/or slight swelling along the shin.

  • generally, occur both during and after exercise, worsens with increased duration or intensity of activities.

  • generally aggravated by touching the sore spot.

How is shin splints treated?

Rest. The initial treatment for shin splints is simply rested as shin splints are typically caused by muscle overuse. Standard treatment includes several weeks of rest from the activity that caused the pain. Lower impact types of aerobic activity such as cycling or swimming can be substituted during recovery.

Ice and Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication can be useful in reducing pain and swelling. Use cold packs for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day, using a damp cloth between your skin and the ice, rather than directly to the skin.

Compression. Wearing an elastic compression bandage may prevent additional swelling.

Supportive footwear. Wearing shoes with good support and cushioning during daily activities will help reduce stress in your shins.

Orthotics. Identifying the real cause of the shin splints is crucial to prevent further foot complications. Assessments can be performed to determine if your shin splints are caused by abnormal lower limb biomechanics. People who have excessive foot pronation may benefit from orthotics. Orthotics can be custom made or over the counter, our podiatrist can assist you in choosing the right type of orthotics in accordance to your condition.

Muscle stretching and strengthening exercises is essential in relieving tight muscles and reducing the risks of recurrence.

Dry needling can be useful in relieving tight muscles and swelling, which aids in recovery.

Everyone can present with shin splints of different causes and lifestyle. It is crucial to visit your podiatrist to identify the root cause of your condition and tailor a management plan based on your lifestyle and condition. As a thumb of rule, the sooner the symptoms are treated, the better the outcome and prevention of further complications.

Is there anything I can do to prevent shin splints?

Yes, here are our top recommended tips.

1. Wear a proper fitting, supportive footwear with or without orthotics

Footwear with the right fit and design for your activities can help prevent abnormal lower limb biomechanics that can place excessive strains on the muscles. In addition to supportive footwear, orthotics may be beneficial to further enhance your lower limb function to minimize the risk of shin splints.

​2. Slowly build up your fitness level

It is highly recommended that you increase the duration, intensity and frequency of your exercise regimen gradually. This is particularly crucial for any beginner runners or individuals looking to start a new sports/fitness routines. It is suggested that cross train maybe beneficial by alternating jogging with lower impact sports such as swimming or cycling.

3. Perform muscle strengthening, stretching exercises and warm up properly

Tightness in the lower limb muscles, especially calf muscles, dorsiflexors can cause muscle imbalances in lower legs and excessive foot pronation. Hence, regular stretches and strengthening exercises can be useful in reducing the risks of shin splints.

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