Your lower leg might be more complicated than you think. It’s made from a variety of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues that connect the knee and upper leg to the ankle. These structures all play a critical role in not only helping to bear the weight of walking and running but also to provide your ankle and feet with the necessary agility to smoothly handle changes in terrain.
When any part of the lower leg is injured, compromised, or limited by things like inflammation it can have a profound effect on your mobility as well as your overall quality of life. Shin splints are one of the more common problems associated with the lower leg and can range in severity from a mere annoyance when walking or running to a significant degree of pain that hampers your mobility and quality of life.
What Are Shin Splints?
Shin Splints is a layman’s term used to describe “Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome.” It’s used to describe discomfort or pain that runs along the tibia or shin bone in the front of the lower leg. Shin splints can affect anyone who stands on their feet or walks for long hours at a time. Though it is far more common with dancers, runners, athletes, and even military recruits.
The increasing intensity in one’s exercise or training routine is usually a trigger associated with the onset of shin splint symptoms. This usually places increasing stress on already tax structures in the lower leg such as the muscles, tendons, bone tissues, and connective tissues.
Activities That Increase Your Risk For Shin Splints
Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome is typically caused by repetitive stress on the shinbone or tibia as well as the connective tissues that attach the lower leg muscles to the surrounding bones. With this in mind, there are a few things that can put you at increased risk for developing shin splints. This includes:
- Frequently or daily running in your exercise program
- Increased intensity in your exercise routine, especially for lower body exercises
- Frequently running or hiking on uneven terrain
- Frequently walking or long periods of standing on hard surfaces
- Military training
- Your feet have high arches or you have “Flat Feet”
What Are The Common Symptoms Of Shin Splints?
- Shin split symptoms can occur when over-training or increased intensity. Common symptoms of shin splints include:
- Tenderness in the inside of the front lower leg
- Increasing soreness in the front lower leg
- Swelling in the lower leg
- Stiffness in the front lower leg muscles
- Decreased range of motion in the lower leg and ankles caused by stiffness
Can I Treat Shin Splits Myself?
A lot of cases of shin splints can be mitigated and resolves with basic self-care. This includes things like activity cessation, ice, and perhaps periodically taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. This should significantly ease shin splits symptoms within a week to 10 days.
If you return to normal activity, or the same frequency of exercise and shin splints symptoms start to return you may need to take additional measures. This might include things like breaking your daily run into two slightly shorter runs instead of one long one. In some shin splint cases, upgrading to special cushioning or corrective footwear might also be called for.
When Should I See A Doctor For Shin Splints?
You should strongly consider seeing a doctor if your shin splints discomfort does not improve with 7 to 10 days of rest and basic self-care measures. Medical intervention should also be sought if you are experiencing severe pain, as it could be a symptom of a more serious complication such as a stress fracture in the tibia or another related lower leg bone.
How Are Shin Splints Diagnosed?
In most suspected cases of shin splints, the physician will start by reviewing your medical history and asking some key questions about activities and exercise routines that might be causing your underlying discomfort. This might later be factored into developing a customized treatment plan. This phase of the diagnostic process might also include a simple mechanical examination to evaluate if your range of motion has been compromised.
Be sure to let your physician know about any increases in your activity level or recent changes in your exercise routine. Also, make sure to note if one shin is giving you more discomfort than another and if the pain is localized to one area more than another. This might be an early indicator of a potential stress fracture, which would influence the treatment plan and require further diagnostics.
If your physician suspects that there might be a stress fracture in either of your tibia bones or the surrounding bones or severe inflammation they might recommend a short series of X-rays. This will help assess the health and structural integrity of the bone tissues, as well as any severe inflammation concerns that might complicate the recovery process.
Shin splints are usually diagnosed based on your medical history and a physical exam. In some cases, an X-ray or other imaging studies can help identify other possible causes for your pain, such as a stress fracture.
How Are Shin Splints Treated?
To effectively treat a severe case of shin splints, your physician might give you a prescription for potent anti-inflammatory medication and refer you to a physical therapist. They will walk you through a variety of stretches and other rehabilitative exercises to help decrease discomfort, as well as improve flexibility in the lower leg and overall range of motion.
In some cases, an effective shin splint treatment strategy will also call for using special lower leg braces. Some are infused with a special material that lets you chill them for several hours in the freezer. Applying the cold braces helps directly targeted cooling to the muscles and connective tissues better than a traditional ice pack.
How Are Shin Splints With A Stress Fracture Treated?
A minor stress fracture might simply heal on its own with significant rest. Though a more significant stress fracture in the tibia or one of the related ankle bones might require surgical intervention. Especially if there are complications related to chronic inflammation.
After surgically repairing the stress fracture and any other compromised tissues you might need to wear a cast for 4 to 6 weeks or more. After that, you will need to engage in 6 to 12 weeks of rehabilitation therapy to fully restore the strength and balance of the lower leg muscles.
Most cases of shin splints can be treated with rest, ice, and other self-care measures. Wearing proper footwear and modifying your exercise routine can help prevent shin splints from recurring.