Fitness Articles

Tips and Hints to Deal with Shin Splints

Preventing and Caring for this Common Injury

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The phrase "shin splint" is a generic term that describes pain in the lower leg, either on the medial (inside) or lateral (outside) side of the shin bone. This pain usually begins as a dull ache that can't be pinpointed; it can be felt along the entire region where the muscle attaches to the bone.

Early on, exercisers will usually feel pain only at the beginning and end of their workouts. But over time the discomfort becomes more severe, lasting throughout workouts and striking even when you're not exercising, like when getting out of bed.

Technically, shin pain can be caused by a number of conditions, such as tendonitis, periostitis (inflammation of the membrane covering the bone), or a stress fracture. Considering that the placement, causes, and treatment of these three injuries are often the same, the term "shin splint" became a simple way to label the injury.

Shin splints almost always occur in sports that involve running or jumping, such as jogging, dancing, gymnastics, and more. Even walkers can experience shin splints. Contrary to popular belief, they do not always represent a stress fracture of the shin bone (tibia), although stress fractures can be one of the reasons for lower leg pain.
 
What causes shin splints?
  • Doing too much too soon. Often people with a lot of enthusiasm start an exercise program too aggressively. It is important to gradually progress in your running or conditioning program, allowing for adequate rest between workouts.
     
  • Increasing the intensity or duration of your workouts. Overuse syndrome typically occurs when someone does too much and continually strains the muscles of the lower leg. Increasing your distance or intensity by more than 10% per week would make you a prime candidate for shin splints—especially if you don't cross-train to diversity your program.
     
  • Your shoes. Quality running and cross-training shoes are designed to give the best anatomical support. If your shoes are broken down or old—even when the soles or top appear fine—then they have lost their ability to control the rotation of your foot and absorb shock. This "breakdown" usually occurs after 400-500 miles of wear.
     
  • The surfaces on which you exercise. Hard surfaces can cause and aggravate shin splints. The optimal surface for running and aerobics should absorb shock, such as an all-purpose track or grassy surface.
     
  • High impact exercise. Running sprints, running uphill, jumping, and repetitive impact exercises can all cause shin splints.
     
  • Your anatomy. Fallen arches (flat feet), knocked or internally rotated knees, very high arches and over rotation of the foot are all prime causes of shin splints. An orthopedic physician, athletic trainer, or physical therapist can help identify mechanical problems and may prescribe orthotics (custom shoe inserts) as well as strengthening and stretching exercises.
How can I ease the pain of shin splints?

A combination of these three approaches will usually help most people recover from shin splints and experience less pain:

1. Active Rest is the first mode of treatment for all types of shin splints. "Active rest" does not mean you must stop running or exercising. Many people make the mistake of not exercising for many weeks and then attempting the same distances that got them into trouble the first time. Rather, rest should be active to relieve stress on painful areas, yet maintain your conditioning. Completely stopping activities may give temporary relief, but injuries are likely to resurface with resumed activity, especially if you are trying to make up for lost time.

Active rest activities include low-impact exercises like the elliptical trainer, stationary cycling, and swimming. Try any activity that doesn't involve the same muscles as running, and that doesn't require repetitive impact on hard surfaces. “Water running” is another effective way to rehab these injuries: Use a flotation device and run in the deep end of a pool. You can move to the shallow end, running on the bottom, as your pain begins to improve.

Remember, the human body is truly remarkable in its ability to adapt, BUT it prefers to adapt to gradual changes over time. With slow, steady progress, your muscles, tendons and other soft tissues will better adapt to the stresses you are asking of it.

2. Ice can be very helpful during the acute phases of your pain. This is especially true if your shin splints are accompanied by redness, localized tenderness, or swelling. Try an ice massage by holding an ice cube in a washcloth and rubbing the swollen, sore area for 10 to 15 minutes. Another trick of the trade is to use a bag of frozen vegetables.

Remember not to exceed 10 to 15 minutes each time you ice, and always wrap ice cubes, frozen veggies, and store-bought gel ice in a towel or washcloth to avoid burns and frostbite. You can repeat icing every few hours as needed.

3. Stretching and strengthening the calf muscles can help prevent and treat shin splints. Here are some stretches that will target this area. (Hold each stretch for 10-15 seconds, repeating 2-3 times.)
  • Calf stretch: Step forward into a half lunge, toes pointing forward. Your forward leg should be bent and the back leg should be straight. Stretch the calf of your back leg by pressing your heel down toward the floor, keeping the forward leg bent and stationary. You should feel a stretch in the calf of your back leg. Repeat on opposite side.
     
  • Hamstring stretch: Begin by standing upright, feet under hips, toes pointed forward. Place the heel of your right forward so that your toes point upward. Keep your back leg slightly bent and abs tight to help with balance. Place your hands on your front thigh. Keeping torso straight, bend over from the waist, lowering your upper body towards your extended leg until you feel a stretch in the hamstring of your front leg. Repeat on opposite side.
Remember, these are general guidelines for the self-treatment of shin splints. The underlying problem is that your body is unable to cope with the stress of exercise that you are placing on it. Be patient; it will take time—sometimes weeks or months—to resolve. Never attempt to train through the pain, and always stop when your body tells you to. If you are not improving with this home treatment, if you worsen significantly, or if the pain becomes a continuous discomfort (even at rest), revisit your health care provider.

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Member Comments

  • I use to get shin splints a lot and they are very painful. I stopped getting them after I started performing stretches I saw a man recommend on tv. It's been several years so I can't remember the person. Anyway, what he said to do was to walk a little to warm up and then you go up on your toes, back on your heels and then roll you foot to the side, so you are bending it sideways at the ankle, toward the outside of your foot. I do it several times. You will feel this stretch right along the front of the shin. Sorry if my description is not the best. Once I started doing this it made a tremendous difference to me. Also I can do it while I'm out walking if I feel my shins tightening up. Hope this helps someone else.
  • A great article. I suffer from shin splints, therefore causing me to quit walking. Thank you for suggesting the video by Nicole for exercises.
  • In the Spark videos, Coach Nicole has a great, short stretching demo for preventing shin splints!
  • Since I was very young and played all sports, the best thing I found for shin splints, was always to move backwards.
    Our track and field hockey coaches made us run backwards.
    I will still occasionally walk backwards on the treadmill.
    Instant relief from pain - no pain after - shin splints are gone!!!
  • I find proper stretching before and after exercise makes such a difference. I don't do it well or often enough and I am trying to remedy that.
  • CEDRIKSTEVENS45
    Icing works, but I would do it for 20 minutes on, 30 minutes off x3 each day (Check this site how to do icing: http://www.health
    andremedies.o
    rg/2-powerful
    -ways-to-reli
    eve-shin-pain-fast/). Try massaging the area as much as you like, take ibuprofen as it is a NSAID.

    And, honestly, I would go to a specialist and see why this is happening to you. It could be a simple and quick solution like wrapping up your foot before meets for now.

    Adding in more exercises to increase leg strength will probably also help you in the long run.
  • Great information. This happened to me when I was walking. I found that I walk fast and changing to a running shoe solved my issue with pain.
  • We've always been told a shin splint is the pain right down the front of the leg (shin), never the side of the leg.
  • EX-SKINNY60
    Thank you Spark for helping me identify this problem that I have been having exactly in that area. Now I can DO something about it. I am going into my 6th week of 1mile or 2 mile walks with Leslie Sansome. I was so glad to see Coach Nicole's body friendly stretch exercise this morning.
  • I personally found the worst thing for causing shin splints was jumping rope, which was a shame since it was a great aerobic workout for someone with a small house and little space to move during exercise. The prospect of getting shin splints scares me, since they seem to take forever to go away, and will really set back any effort at cardio fitness.
  • XXJOHNXX
    Great article! Even tho, what worked for me, was this guide ... and never had to worry since then :D check if u like to, tinyurl.com/qxnpn
    gp Good job!
  • Yoga sessions are an ideal counter-exercise to running / walking / biking / elliptical etc. Many aerobic activities tighten and shorten hamstrings and other leg muscles while yoga, dancing and martial arts loosen and lengthen these same muscles. Instead of stopping or reducing an aerobic exercise program due to shin splints or other leg pains, try adding 1 hr of yoga 3x per week or more. Massage also does wonders!
  • Great article! I thought I was going to have to quit walking. Now I know how to deal with shin splints. Thanks to everyone that has posted suggestions here!
  • FITMOMMY18
    Thanks for the tip about compression sleeves. Very prone to shin splints as well, so I'll try one of those... or two. LOL
  • I've been *extremely* prone to shin splints since the first time I got them in '97. One wrong step and I would have a shin splint work its way up from ankle to knee. And it took several weeks to heal if they were particularly bad. I thought I had tried everything until I read up on compression sleeves for the shin/calf. I wear them when my workouts are impact exercises (running/walking/
    jumping) and keep them on for a while after. I also have a second not sweaty pair for putting on for a bit whenever they are feeling weak. Very comfortable and now I can run consistently and up my mileage without pain. It may not work for everyone, but it has for me. There are many brands out there to look into. In fact, I'm wearing them right now post boot camp!

About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

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