Understanding and Managing Shin Splints

Understanding and Managing Shin Splints

By Professional Physical Therapy

Shin splints can be a frustrating and painful condition, but with the right information and approach, you can effectively manage and overcome it. Whether you’re an athlete, fitness enthusiast, or someone who is just active everyday it’s important to have a comprehensive understanding of shin splints and learn practical tips for relief and recovery.

What are Shin Splints?

Shin splints, medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome, refers to pain and inflammation along the shinbone (tibia) that runs down the inner edge or the front of your lower leg. It is commonly associated with repetitive activities that place stress on the muscles and bones surrounding the shin. While shin splints are commonly associated with running, they can also affect individuals engaged in other activities such as walking, dancing, jumping or any high-impact repetitive movements. You can also be particularly affected if you are just starting a new fitness program or activity.

Symptoms of Shin Splints

Shin splints typically manifest as pain and tenderness along the inner side or the front of the shinbone. It is due to inflammation of muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around your tibia. It often develops gradually over time rather than appearing suddenly. Initially, you may experience mild discomfort during or after activity, which can progressively get worse. Common symptoms include:

  • Sharp and throbbing, dull or aching pain in the lower leg, especially during or after exercise.
  • Tenderness and soreness along the inner part of the shinbone.
  • Mild swelling or inflammation.
  • Pain that diminishes with rest but recurs when activity resumes.
  • Possible development of small bumps or lumps along the shinbone in severe cases.

In some cases, shin splints can lead to a stress reaction or stress fracture. Prolonged or untreated shin splints can cause microfractures in the bone, resulting in more severe pain and prolonged recovery time.

Causes and Risk Factors

Shin splints typically result from a combination of factors rather than one single cause. These factors can include:

  1. Overuse: Engaging in repetitive high-impact activities without proper rest and recovery.
  2. Anatomy: Having flat feet or abnormally rigid arches
  3. Incorrect footwear: Wearing worn-out shoes or shoes that do not provide adequate support.
  4. Muscle imbalances: Weakness or tightness in certain leg muscles, such as the calf muscles or the anterior tibialis.
  5. Training errors: Sudden increases in intensity, duration, or frequency of physical activity.
  6. Medical issues: Flat feet, high arches, or abnormal foot pronation can increase the risk of shin splints.
  7. Environmental factors: Running on hard surfaces or uneven terrain can contribute to shin splint development.

 Immediate Relief for Shin Splints

  • Rest: As soon as you experience shin pain, take a break from the activity causing the discomfort. Rest allows the injured tissues to heal.
  • Ice Therapy: Apply ice packs or a cold compress to the affected area for 15-20 minutes, several times a day. This helps reduce pain, inflammation, and swelling. Remember to use a thin cloth or towel as a barrier between the ice pack and your skin.
  • Compression: Consider using compression socks or sleeves to provide gentle compression and support to the shins, which can help alleviate pain and swelling.
  • Elevation: When resting, elevate your legs by propping them up on a pillow or cushion. Elevating the legs helps reduce swelling and promotes circulation.
  • Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium, can provide temporary relief from pain and reduce inflammation. Follow the recommended dosage and consult with a healthcare professional if needed.
  • Gentle Stretching: Perform gentle stretches for the calves and shins to alleviate tightness and improve flexibility. However, avoid stretching to the point of pain, as it may exacerbate the condition.
  • Foam Roller: A few gentle rolls on the painful spot on your shin can help alleviate pain.
  • Increasing Support at the Feet: Obtaining more supportive shoes or orthotics may reduce the stress in the painful structures along your shinbone.

 Remember, while these strategies can provide immediate relief, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist, sports medicine specialist, or doctor for a proper diagnosis and to develop a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your specific needs.

What is the average recovery time for shin splints?

The recovery time for shin splints can vary depending on various factors, including the severity of the condition, individual healing capacity, adherence to treatment, and underlying contributing factors. On average, with proper management and following recommended treatment protocols, most people can expect a recovery period of approximately 4 to 6 weeks. However, it’s important to note that this is just an estimate, and the actual recovery time can be longer or shorter depending on individual circumstances.

During the recovery phase, it is essential to allow adequate rest and avoid activities that exacerbate the pain. Engaging in low-impact exercises or cross-training activities that do not place excessive stress on the shins can help maintain overall fitness and cardiovascular health while allowing the shin splints to heal.

It’s worth mentioning that some individuals may experience a longer recovery period if their shin splints have progressed to a stress reaction or stress fracture. In such cases, a more conservative approach and a longer period of rest and restricted activity may be necessary to ensure proper healing.

How Physical Therapy Can Help Shin Splints

For runners, walkers or anyone struggling with shin splints, physical therapy can be an invaluable resource. Working with a physical therapist will not only aid in managing the pain and promoting healing but also provide the knowledge and tools necessary to prevent shin splints from recurring. Here are some keyways PT can assist in your recovery.

  1. Accurate Diagnosis and Assessment: A physical therapist will evaluate your symptoms, medical history, and conduct a thorough examination to accurately diagnose shin splints and to rule out other potential causes of pain.
  2. Pain and Inflammation Management: Physical therapists employ various techniques to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. This may include the use of ice therapy, manual therapies, such as massage or soft tissue mobilization, and other modalities to provide relief and facilitate healing.
  3. Exercise Prescription: PTs will prescribe specific exercises to strengthen and stretch the muscles around the shins, calves, and feet or even other parts of your body such as your core/hip. These exercises aim to address muscle imbalances, improve flexibility, and enhance overall lower limb stability and movement. They may also recommend cross-training activities to maintain fitness while reducing stress on the shins.
  4. Gait Analysis (also known as walking, running or motion analysis): A physical therapist can guide you through gait retraining, helping you adopt more efficient and biomechanically sound movement patterns. This may involve adjustments in stride length, cadence, foot strike, and body posture to minimize stress on the shins.
  5. Footwear Assessment: Assessment can ensure you have appropriate footwear that provides proper support and cushioning for your specific needs. In some cases, custom orthotic shoe inserts may be recommended to correct foot mechanics and reduce stress on the shins.
  6. Gradual Return to Activity: Physical therapists play a crucial role in designing a structured and gradual return-to-activity plan. They will guide you through a progressive program that gradually increases the intensity, duration, and frequency of running or walking, ensuring your shins have adequate time to adapt and heal.
  7. Education and Prevention Strategies: Through education and personalized guidance, physical therapists empower runners and walkers to make informed decisions about their training. They can educate you about strategies for preventing shin splints in the future.

If you are experiencing shin pain during or after exercise, it is often an indicator that your body is telling you something is wrong. Symptoms can progressively get worse and lead to other problems if not successfully diagnosed and treated. Visit one of our Professional Physical Therapy clinics near you to get started. Request an appointment for a consultation so you can feel better and get back to doing the things you love.

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