Shin splints is a common term for irritated and inflamed tendons and their attachments in a compartment of the lower leg. Shin splints are a pain in the front of your lower leg caused by inflammation of the muscle tissue that runs just on the outside of your tibia (shin bone).
How do shin splints occur?
Shin splints occur from overuse of the muscle group on the inside front of the lower leg. This muscle group flexes the foot and prevents your foot from slapping on the ground when you walk. Overuse can cause tiny tears and irritation in the muscle tissue and its connection to the bone.
Shin pain occurs in athletes from over training, improper stretching before an athletic activity, and, commonly, in runners who add too many miles to a training program too quickly. Running on hard surfaces (such as concrete or pavement) or running in shoes that lack proper cushioning can contribute to the development of shin splints. Poor muscle strength as well as problems with the natural angle of the foot and ankle can also cause shin pain.
What are the signs and symptoms of shin splints?
The common signs of shin splints are mild to severe pain in the shin, along the inside front of the lower leg. The pain is present during and after exercise. Differential diagnosis include stress fractures. This condition usually causes severe pain on the shin to the touch because the tibia bone is just under the skin at this point.
How are shin splints diagnosed?
To diagnose shin splints, your doctor will examine the front of your leg and will ask you about the history of the pain and your current activities. X-rays and other imaging are not used to diagnose shin splints, but may be used to rule out an injury to a bone such as stress fractures along the tibia.
How are shin splints treated?
- Rest - All activities and exercise that require the active use of the muscles front of the leg (such as running) should be restricted for 4 - 6 weeks, or until pain-free. Talk with your doctor about a plan for gradually returning to full activity.
- Ice - Ice packs may be used every hour for 15 minutes at a time to help alleviate pain and reduce swelling.
- Medication - Your doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory pain medication.
- Stretching/strengthening - Your doctor or physical therapist will likely recommend stretching and strengthening exercises for the muscles surrounding the shin.
- Supportive footwear and orthotics - Wearing shoes with appropriate cushioning is recommended. Talk with your doctor about working to correct the mechanism of injury by considering supportive shoe inserts to correct the angle of the foot and ankle. Talk with your doctor and physical therapist about the best approach for gradually increasing activity during the recovery process.
When can I expect to recover from shin splints?
Recovery time for shin splints is normally 4 to 6 weeks, depending on the severity of the condition. During recovery, close attention to your recommended rehabilitation program and limiting activities that require heavy use of the muscles in the shin will speed your healing process.
How can I prevent shin splints?
The best way to prevent shin splints is to:
- stay conditioned
- stretch out your calf and shin muscles fully before exercise
- slowly increase running distances in your training program
- run on soft surfaces (running trails and gravel tracks rather than concrete or asphalt)
- wear shoes with adequate cushioning.