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How Shin Splints Work

Overuse is a common cause of shin splints.
Overuse is a common cause of shin splints.
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When a typically pleasant run turns into a painful chore, shin splints could be the cause of your trouble. Shin splints -- less commonly known as medial tibial stress syndrome -- occur when accumulated stress injures the inside (medial) part of your tibia (shinbone). There isn't much padding on your shinbone, but there is a thin layer of tissue surrounding the tibia called the periosteum. It can become inflamed from the repeated pounding involved with running or other high-impact activities. The inflammation and resulting pain is what we know as shin splints.

Pain is the biggest symptom of shin splints, and it can set in during or after a workout. The level of discomfort can range from mild to so severe you don't even want to walk. Shin splints can also be deceptive -- they may be painful when you first begin your running session but seem to go away when the muscles warm up. Don't be fooled: Continuing to run with shin splints can lead to further damage, such as a stress fracture. Stress fractures take much longer to heal and require professional treatment.

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Jog on over to the next page to learn more about what causes shin splints.

Make sure to gradually increase your mileage.
Make sure to gradually increase your mileage.
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Shin splint causes range from the seemingly obvious to the obscure. In most cases, it's the result of overuse. A novice runner who doesn't ease into a regular workout routine is particularly vulnerable. But even seasoned runners who increase their mileage rapidly are at risk. Many experienced runners subscribe to the 10 percent rule which says you shouldn't increase your running mileage more than 10 percent from week to week. So, if for example, you have been running 30 miles per week, it would be a mistake to increase your mileage to more than 33 miles the following week. Excessive training coupled with inadequate recovery is a recipe for disaster [source: Runner's World].

A lot happens to your body when the rubber meets the road. The surface you run on plays a big part in causing shin splints. Pounding the pavement, literally, can put extra stress on your calves. The type of surface you're running on and whether it's flat, sloped or uneven can contribute to your risk of developing shin splints. The harder the surface, the more shock your body has to absorb. When it comes to the outdoors, concrete is the worst culprit followed by asphalt. Running up or downhill puts additional stress on the muscles, bone and connective tissue in your feet and legs and can also lead to injury. A dirt or wood-chip trail is much more forgiving and can reduce the risk of injury [source: Steckel].

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Wearing old or worn-out shoes can also get you hurt because they don't cushion the blow adequately when your foot hits the ground. Instead, the shockwaves jolt your musculoskeletal system. Also, if you have flat feet or if you run in shoes without adequate arch supports, you're more at risk. A flat foot -- or even a normal foot without arch supports -- collapses, stretches and eventually fatigues the muscles and tendons with each step. When the muscles surrounding the tibia are stressed, the surrounding sheath can become inflamed and painful.

Shuffle over to the next section to learn more about shin splint treatments.

If you have shin splints you'll need to suspend your running workouts awhile.
If you have shin splints you'll need to suspend your running workouts awhile.
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Shin splint treatment and recovery is normally simple. You can often treat them at home, while more severe cases may require professional medical care. If you suspect you have shin splints, one of the first things you'll want to do -- even if you plan to visit a doctor -- is reduce the pain and swelling.

You may have heard of the RICE method. It stands for rest, icing, compression and elevation. While RICE is an effective treatment approach, unfortunately, you'll need to suspend running and any other high-impact activities for some time. This could mean days or weeks away from the track or trail. In the meantime, you may want to consider other activities like swimming or cycling which will help you maintain your fitness while allowing your shins time to heal.

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To ice your shins, place a clean towel on the affected area then apply ice as many as eight times a day for up to 20 minutes a session. Compression -- like taping the area or wearing a neoprene sleeve -- can help support the muscles and provide nearly instant pain relief. (Remember this is just to help you resume daily activities like school or work. You still have to take a break from running until you're healed.) Elevating your leg above chest level can also reduce inflammation and resulting pain. Some athletic trainers also suggest alternating icing sessions with heat therapy, as well as massage. Your doctor or physical therapist may advise you to do range of motion exercises as well. If your shins don't respond to home remedies, you should consult your doctor.

You may be asking yourself, will these shin splints ever go away? The answer is on the next page.

Running on grass can help prevent injuries.
Running on grass can help prevent injuries.
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If you enjoy running, you're understandably anxious to get back to it. But patience is the key to proper healing. It can take several weeks to several months for that healing to occur. You can tell that your shin splints have healed when you can run or jump with no pain and when your injured leg is as strong and flexible as the non-injured one.

As we mentioned earlier, while you're recovering, you can cross train with non-impact activities like cycling, swimming and weight training. When you do resume running, keep prevention in the forefront of your mind. You'll need to address the factors that can cause shin splints. Be sure to avoid hard surfaces as much as possible and run on a padded track, grass, dirt or a sand trail. Wear proper running shoes and consider insoles or arch supports. Remember to warm up before running and stretch at least once a day. Start out slowly and gradually increase the distance, speed and frequency of your workouts.

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Strength training exercises like toe raises and leg presses will also help you avoid shin splints. Wearing a sleeve will provide support as well as warmth and increased blood flow to the shins, reducing the chance of injury.

For more information on shin splints and other running-related information, see the links on the next page.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Steckel, Mark, M.D. "Shin Splints." 2007. (Aug. 15, 2010).http://www.spinalhealth.net/inj-shin.html
  • Runner's World. "The 10-Percent Rule." Amby Burfoot. Nov. 14, 2001. (Aug. 27, 2010).http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-238-267--1051-0,00.html
  • Discovery Health. "10 Suggestions for the Treatment of Shin Splints." HowStuffWorks.com. Sept. 8, 2005. (Aug. 10, 2010).https://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/diet-fitness/information/10016-10-suggestions-for-the-treatment-of-shin-splints.htm
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Shin Splints." Dec. 30, 2008. (Aug. 10, 2010).http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/shin-splints/DS00271
  • The Editors of PureHealthMD. "Shin Splints." (Aug. 15, 2010).https://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/musculoskeletal/shin-splints.htm
  • The Editors of Consumer Guide. "10 Home Remedies for Shin Splints." (Aug. 15, 2010).https://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/natural-medicine/home-remedies/home-remedies-for-shin-splints.htm

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