Shin splints is a syndrome of lower leg pain that is neither unusual nor well understood. It can plague athletes of all ages and occurs in any sport that involves running. It is characterized by pain along the front of back of the lower half of the shin bone, or tibia. Those affected usually find the discomfort to be aggravated by exercise and eased by rest.
The bulk of the lower leg is comprised of a complex of powerful muscles which control foot movement. In addition to the tibia a thinner bone, the fibula is present. The fibula is buried in muscle throughout most of its length but is easily recognized as the knobby protuberance on the outside of the ankle. Various muscles originate from these two bones and the tough membrane which connects them.
Shin splints has been defined by some as an inflammation at the site of bony attachment of some of these muscles. The trouble is blamed on overuse of the muscles, such as when an athlete increases the pace or intensity of his workouts too rapidly.
Another causative factor frequently cited is inadequate stretching and warm-up of the calf musculature. If you want to prevent shin splints the importance of stretching prior to any exercise cannot be overemphasized. Some authors believe that an imbalance of strength is the primary reason for development of shin splints. They state that through training the posterior calf muscles (which draw the foot downward) will gradually become disproportionately stronger than the anterior muscles (which draw the foot upward). This results in a stress overload on the weaker muscles, causing the characteristic shin pain.
The recommended shin splints treatment is stretching of the posterior muscles and strengthening of the anterior group. Another school of thought insists that all of the symptoms of shin splints can be traced to abnormal foot mechanics.
Excessive inward rolling of the foot during weight bearing is the most frequently blamed fault. Flattened or inadequately supported arches are also likely to increase the risk for shin splints as well as other foot, leg, and knee troubles.
As is frequently seen in medical circles, a great deal of disagreement surrounds the understanding of shin splints. Diagnostically, even the use of the non-descriptive term “shin splints” is testimony to the difficulties involved in accurate identification of the irritated tissues. Despite the controversy, what practical suggestions can be made in regard to treatment and prevention of shin splints?
Here are some recommendations for preventing shin splints:
1. Adequate flexibility of the calf muscles is a must. This includes stretching of the posterior muscles both with the knee straight and slightly bent.
2. Properly fitting athletic shoes with adequate arch supports should be worn.
3. Increase the intensity and duration of workouts gradually.
4. A change of running surface is sometimes the precipitating incident in development of symptoms. Therefore, when the usual running surface must be altered, a temporary reduction in the intensity of workouts may be necessary to minimize difficulties.
5. Applying ice to the painful area after exercise should help, but a period of rest for one to three weeks is inevitable if healing is to occur.
6. If you treat your symptoms with ice, stretching and rest without relief, seek qualified medical assistance.
Occasionally the symptoms of an insufficient blood supply to the muscles or a small fracture of one of the lower leg bones may be mistaken for shin splints. These problems will not respond to the standard treatment for shin splints and require specialized medical care.