“Shin splints” is a general term referring to pain along the shinbone (tibia) — the large bone in the front of your lower leg. The pain can originate on the front of your lower leg (anterior shin splints) or the back (posterior shin splints). Shin splints are very common, mostly in runners of all ages, dancers and servicemen and women.
The medical term for the most common type of shin splints is medial tibial stress syndrome. Shin splints are most often caused by changes in intensity of exercise, changes in training routines, or generally overworked muscles, tendons and bone tissues related to motion (usually running). Lots of people experience them when they change their run to more uneven terrain (up hills for example). You can also get shin splints by doing repetitive activities that require a lot of starting and stopping (like dance or military exercise). Basically, shin splints occur as a result of overloading your shin bones. Different than a muscle cramp, shin splints persist, often over days or weeks if untreated. In general, shin splints are more painful than they are dangerous, but some active treatment is wise.
Do I have shin splints?
The symptoms of shin splints vary. Typically they are:
- Tenderness, soreness or pain along the inner part of your lower leg
- Irritated and mildly swollen muscles in your lower leg, like your gastrocnemius (gastrocs), tibialis anterior, and soleus muscles
- Feet may feel numb and weak, because swollen muscles irritate the nerves
Of course, each of these symptoms could be a sign of other, more serious issues (especially if you see increased swelling, pain after several weeks, or if the area is red and feels hot to the touch), so it’s best to get it checked out by a medical professional if you’re in doubt.
What to do about shin splints
The first thing you should do is put the activity you were doing when you felt the shin splints, like running, on PAUSE. Healing the inflamed muscles and tendons can take 2-4 weeks. Most cases of shin splints can be treated, and healing accelerated with R.I.C.E., wearing proper footwear, and sports massage. Focus on other exercise during that time.
Once you feel the pain subside for at least a week, EASE back into the activity. Remember to stretch before running. Avoid hard surfaces. Wear good shoes. Be careful to start back to your routing slowly, because starting too quickly can make your shin splints come back a hundred times worse and last a whole lot longer. Severe cases of shin splints can last months.
Bottom line–if you experience shin splints, stop the exercise you were doing (or similar exercises), follow the RICE protocol, check your running shoes, and grab a sports massage.