Shin Splints: There’s no fun pun. Just Pain
By Brock Shirley
Image © r1ccky / Fotolia
I created some horrendously fantastic pun titles for this article, including ‘10 Shins I Hate About You’ , and ‘puSHIN through the pain’, but decided the injury in question was above such frivolity. Few things can frustrate a runner more than the dreaded shin splints. They’re painful, long lasting and downright soul crushing. You feel like you’re flying, everything is going great and then one day a little pain starts in the front of your lower leg and then it gets worse until it stops you in your tracks.
The saddest thing about shin splints is most of the time it is entirely your fault. But this is also the greatest thing about them as well. It means that with a few changes, this can all go away.
Before I explore what might get you back running, we should first explore the what, why and how’s of shin splints.
What are shin splints?
Shin splints are a generalised pain of the muscles and Tibia (shin bone) on the front of your lower leg. There’s no conclusive explanation of what’s actually occurring down there but some theories say that you have small tears in the muscle that’s pulled off the bone, inflammation of the perisoteum (thin layer of tissue that wraps around bones) or inflammation of muscles. Some theories suggest it could be a mix of all of the above. This injury often hits beginner runners who are not used to the stresses of running or those who are increasing their training too fast.
Is it actually shin splints?
Self-diagnosing is a big no no. First up, always refer to a Doctor or Physiotherapist and rule out anything else it could be. Shin splints have very similar symptoms to:
- Compartment Syndrome: This is the swelling of muscles in a closed compartment. Pain may present itself in the outer side of the leg. If the pain is worse in the morning than it was during or immediately after the run then this could be a red flag. This is serious and if left untreated could lead to surgery. We have a previous article by iMove Physiotherapy about this on our website. You can check it out here: www.runningfunctional.com/injury-chat-compartment-syndrome-strategies-runners/
- Stress Fracture: This is an incomplete crack in the bone. Shin splints pain is a generalised pain up and down the length of the shin. If you have a more localized pain, something around the size of a two dollar coin, then this is a sign that it may be a stress fracture and not a bout of shin splints. Get it checked urgently and stop running immediately.
We’re sure it’s shin splints? How did I get them and most importantly how do I give them the boot?
There are a whole heap of factors that could contribute to shin splints. Some are complex and some are simple. Here’s a quick list of the most common causes.
- Over pronation
- Lack of mobility, muscle activation or motor control seen in adverse gait patterns
- worn shoes
- bad shoes
- Running on a cambered road in only one direction resulting in uneven stress on one side of the body
- Overtraining (doing too much or training too often, too soon)
As you can tell, all of these causes are treatable by simple changes in behavior or equipment. Most cases come to be due to a mix of eagerness and lack of education on the principles of training and adaptations. Nothing to be ashamed of, even those with some knowledge have been known to fall victim to this, myself included.
Apart from fixing the obvious things from the causes above e.g. new shoes, there are a few things you should be looking to do:
First up, stop running immediately. Next, address tension spots using a mix of active stretching modalities, mobilisation and self myofascial release. You’ll need a toolkit of approaches both for short term and long term. Your whole system needs maintenance, but don’t forget calves and Achilles. Then, look to improve strength and stability through the hip, down into the lower leg and foot.
There are wrapping and strapping options if you must run but make sure you see a professional for this one. A highly qualified sports trainer, Physio or anyone in the field of sports medicine should be able to help.
Consider cross training; hit the pool, gym or bike and give the legs a rest from weight bearing but keep them moving.
Avoid running on the same camber on a road, if you run on a road that cambers off to each side, run up and back on the same side of the road to equal out the stress on both legs.
Get new shoes that are suited to you, and if you can, get a couple of pairs to vary stresses.
Return to running gradually, slow and steady, avoid hills and hard surfaces early on and slowly reintroduce them as you build up. Don’t build up training by more than 10% per week.
Remember slow and steady is the key here, stay diligent and make good habits. Good luck with it and may your shin splints be a thing of the past.