If you are a keen runner, you will know that there’s nothing worse than a painful injury that stops you from running. Many people find that, after running for a while, they start to experience pain running down their shins when they run. This is probably due to shin splints, otherwise known as “medial tibial stress syndrome.” Shin splints are one of the most common causes of shin pain and can put a real damper on your mood and interrupt your running regime at the worst possible moment.
The pain of shin splints can be a nightmare, but we’re here to help you manage your shin pain and heal up your lower leg as fast as possible. Below, you’ll find an explanation of what’s going on with your shin pain, as well as methods you can use to help your legs recover as fast as possible, and some guidance on how to prevent shin splints from recurring in the future. So, if you’re struggling with leg pain and worried about what to do about it, read on below to find out more about the issues that cause shin splints and how to get rid of the pain in your shins.
What are Shin Splints?
There are a few different types of injury that are generally referred to as a “shin splint.” In most cases, though, the term refers to an overuse injury caused by a large number of tiny tears in your shin muscles. This is often a problem that occurs when you’re wearing worn-out running shoes or other shoes that do not offer much cushioning.
Novice runners are the group that most often get shin splints, as their leg muscles (particularly in the lower legs) are new to the experience and haven’t had the stress they need to toughen up yet. Experienced runners can get shin splints too, though, particularly when running after a period of inactivity due to injury or wearing old shoes. This group is particularly at risk for shin splints, as they often try to get back into running too quickly and increase their mileage too fast, much too soon, leading to lower leg or knee injuries such as shin splints.
The pain you experience with shin splints is a nagging, ongoing pain that focuses on the front of your lower leg. The pain is usually worse during and after periods of exercise or when you apply pressure on the area around your shin bone.
Causes of Shin Splints
There are a few different problems and running injuries that cause shin splints and swelling, all of which can be equally annoying, but all of which are managed and treated in different ways. All forms of this make it impossible to run pain-free and often impossible to run at all, but some of them can be easier to deal with than others.
Sports medicine generally avoids using the term “shin splints” because of this range of different running injuries. These are the most common medical issues that get referred to as “shin splints.”
Muscle Strain Issues
The most common problem behind shin splints is strain, swelling, and damage to your shin muscles, otherwise known as “medial tibial stress syndrome.” This injury happens when you put too much strain on the muscle groups that control the lowering of your foot when you take a step. These muscles are the tibialis posterior and the tibialis anterior, leading to the name for this leg damage. Most injuries to your muscles are caused because they are too weak or too short to take the strain, so as that strain increases, the muscle starts to tear.
Stress fractures are a very common type of injury to the shins. This is another overuse injury, in this case, caused when the muscles in your shins become too fatigued to properly absorb the shock from running. When that happens, the strain is transferred to the bones, which can lead to tiny cracks. This is particularly common in people who run on hard surfaces, as these cause more impact shock.
Stress fractures are much harder to heal than a muscular splint, and it is important to know what type of problem you are dealing with. The more you run on a fractured shin (particularly on hard surfaces), the worse your pain will get, and this can lead to much more serious problems. If you suspect that you might have a stress fracture, see a doctor and get an x-ray as soon as possible.
If your shin splints are, in fact, a stress fracture, you’re going to need to expect to take some time off running. Usually, this will be around four to six weeks, although this can vary depending on the severity of your problem.
Exertional Compartment Syndrome (ECS)
Exertional Compartment Syndrome is a much rarer type of injury than either of the two above and can occur anywhere in your lower leg. This is a condition characterized by a feeling of tightening in the shin that worsens during any exercise – either high-impact activities or lower impact exercise. This can be extremely painful during exercise but very rarely noticeable outside of periods of exercise. Not all that many runners experience this condition, but for those who do, most cases are around the center of the front of the leg.
What are the Symptoms of Shin Splints?
While there are many related conditions with similar symptoms, proper shin sprints come with a feeling of throbbing, tenderness, or dull aches along the inside of the shin, around halfway down. Sometimes this can spread to the outside of the shin too, and down to the ankles and up to the knee. This pain is due to inflammation of your tendons down the inside front lower leg area. If you press on the swelling or inflamed area, it will hurt.
An easy way to tell the difference between shin splints and a bone stress fracture for any runner is seeing whether or not the pain eases. With shin splints, as you loosen up and strengthen over the course of your run, the leg pain can lessen. Bone damage will constantly hurt without getting any better at all!
How to Treat Shin Splints
Many runners find themselves experiencing sore legs or feet during their careers, particularly when increasing mileage quickly or running in old shoes. In many cases, shin pain at the start of a season of running is just something to be expected as you increase your mileage. If this is causing problems, though, there are some self-care options you can try to use to reduce the symptoms. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Ice is invaluable for self-help with muscle problems. If you make sure you ice your shins immediately after running every time you run, it can reduce the inflammation and help you to recover from your run faster. Icing the inflamed area for a 15 minute period a few times every day when not running can also help significantly. As an added pain reduction option, take anti-inflammatory painkillers such as aspirin or ibuprofen as well as using ice.
One of the best ways to deal with shin splints or injuries to your calves is simply to stop running. Reduce your mileage to zero, and take a couple of weeks off to let your muscles knit back together. While you’re off, you can try alternative low impact or zero impact exercises to keep fit. Just stay away from high-impact exercises or anything that puts too much strain on your feet! Try to stay on soft surfaces where possible, too.
Poorly fitted running shoes can aggravate shin splints and cause other problems. To help with issues with your lower legs, see a doctor and ask about custom-made arch insoles for your shoes, which can make a huge difference to the support of your arch.
How to Prevent Shin Splints
There are a few appropriate exercise options you can use to stretch your muscles in training. This training approach can strengthen your calf muscles, making them less likely to tear and require treatment. Simply hook a resistance band around your foot, and stretch your calf and other leg areas just like you would when training any other area of your body.
Heel raises are also a good option. Place the toes of each foot on a step, and then raise and lower your body with your heels hanging over the edge. Calf stretches also work well for training for runners without putting strain on your foot. A program of proper exercises in three sets a day over a several-week period can be a great way to self prepare for runners.
Shin splints can be a nightmare, and it is no fun to spend weeks trying to search for a solution. The best option is usually to rest. Don’t pressure yourself too much, and be prepared to slow your training down for treatment.