Author: Dr. Jeda Boughton, B.A., R.Ac., Dr. TCM, FABORM – Boda Health
Shin Splints: Your Questions Answered
Shin splints can be a pain in your…uh, shin. This painful condition also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, is a sports injury that’s somewhat unique. Here are answers to some questions about shin splints:
What exactly are shin splints?
Simply put, shin splints is a term to describe pain around your shin bone. It comes from inflammation of the muscles (tibialis anterior) and bone tissue (called the periosteum) of the inside of your shin. The most common symptom of shin splints is pain or tenderness along your shin, on the inner side of the bone. Shin splints can be very painful to the touch, and the pain can range from dull and achy to sharp and stabbing. In many cases the pain can be worse during and/or after physical activity such as running.
Can shin splints be confused with other conditions?
Yes, there are a couple of conditions that can act like shin splints. The most common of which is anterior compartment syndrome (ACS). This is a painful condition that occurs when inflammation and pressure within a muscle develops, usually due to some type of trauma. In some cases anterior compartment syndrome can become a medical emergency needing surgery if the swelling is great enough to cause numbness and tissue damage. Anterior compartment syndrome is different from shin splints because it affects the muscle on the outside of your shin creating pressure and numbness and sometimes needing surgery to resolve it, which is rare for shin splints.
People who are experiencing shin pain may also want to check with their doctor to rule out a stress fracture, which is a small crack in the tibial bone. Shin splints may also be confused with inflammation of the tendons, called tendonitis. The pain can be similar in both conditions.
What causes shin splints to occur?
The simplest answer is that shin splints are a type of overuse injury. They usually occur after an increase in the duration or frequency of physical activity. Shin splints are common in runners, especially when they increase their distance, frequency, speed or change their running terrain. Other athletes and people who are on their feet a lot are also at a higher risk for developing shin splints, too. Some other factors that can contribute to shin splints include having flat feet or a high, inflexible arch and working out in worn shoes or wearing the wrong shoes for your sport.
How are shin splints usually treated?
In most cases, treatment for this condition involves rest, ice and if the pain is severe enough, an over-the-counter pain medication. Because shin splints are an overuse injury, rest is especially important.
In most cases, it can take several weeks and even months for the pain and inflammation associated with shin splints to subside, but there’s some good news in that a number of natural therapies can be effective in speeding up the healing timeline. Among them:
Acupuncture. A series of acupuncture sessions can help reduce the inflammation and pain associated with shin splints. In addition, acupuncture increases the circulation of blood and healing nutrients to the areas being treated. In fact, research on treating shin splints with acupuncture supports its effectiveness. One study found that patients who had acupuncture or acupuncture plus sports medicine treatments (stretching, strengthening, ultrasound, etc.) reported greater pain relief and took fewer doses of anti-inflammatory medications than those patients who had sports medicine treatments only.
Cold laser therapy. This is a kind of low level laser therapy that gently and painlessly penetrates deep into affected tissues. It causes physiological changes at the cellular level that enhances cellular metabolism to support healing. In treating shin splints, cold laser therapy can reduce inflammation, increase circulation and reduce pain—all of which can speed up the healing process.
Shockwave therapy. This involves the use of pulsed acoustic waves produced by a device that converts compressed air into sound waves. When applied to the treatment area using a handheld device, it can help promote circulation, break down scar tissue and regenerate healthy tissue. Shock wave therapy can be used on a variety of injuries because it’s effective in treating problems with all kinds of connective tissue including muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and joint capsules.
Massage therapy. A few sessions with a massage therapist may speed up healing by helping to promote circulation and loosen up and restore function to the affected muscles.
Herbal and nutritional supplements. Chinese herbs, vitamins and other nutritional supplements may be a beneficial part of your healing process. Depending on your overall health and nutritional needs, they can be used to decrease inflammation and support tissue healing. At BodaHealth, supplements may be prescribed by our acupuncture practitioners, naturopathic physician or holistic nutritionist.
Is there a way to prevent getting shin splints?
Yes! There are actually some things you can do to avoid developing this painful condition:
Wear the right shoes for your sport. And replace your footwear before it becomes worn out enough to affect your gait. This is especially true if you’re a runner.
Switch it up between high and low impact sports. Shin-friendly sports include swimming, biking, cross country skiing, rowing and walking.
Whenever you ramp up the duration or intensity of a higher-impact sport, be sure to do it slowly and back off if your shins begin to feel sore.
Keeping your legs flexible can help reduce your chances of developing shin splints. This means not only stretching your lower legs, but also your hips, ankles and feet.
Strengthening your feet, shins and calves to prevent overuse injuries.
If you have really flat feet or a history of shin splints, orthotics may be a good choice. Orthotics are a kind of shoe insert that helps to stabilize and align your feet and ankles, which can help prevent lower leg injuries. Orthotics can be custom-made by a podiatrist or other health professional or they can be purchased ready-made.
It’s also important to remember that if you’re recovering from shin splints, returning to exercise can be tricky. Be sure to increase your workouts slowly and keep the intensity low. Also, if you’re experiencing shin splints or any kind of lower leg pain, give us a call at BodaHealth to see how we can help you get back to your active lifestyle!