You may not have ever heard anyone utter these words, but you may have heard them say “Ouch, I have shin splints!” (Or you may have said it yourself.)
Whatever you choose to call them, they HURT. “Shin splints” is a pretty general term for pain along the shin—the front of the lower leg—and sometimes for all types of pain in the lower leg. Shin splints are characterized by tenderness, soreness, and swelling, and they happen when the muscles, tendons, and bones become overworked, or when actual tiny stress fractures occur in the shin bone.
Shin splints are commonly caused by repetitive stress on the shin bone and the tissues that connect the muscles to the bone. They often happen to participants of sports that are played on a hard surface and require lots of sudden stops and starts, like tennis or basketball. They also happen to dancers and to runners, especially those who run on different types of surfaces, switching from one to another (like sidewalk to asphalt) during their training, or running on uneven terrain, like hills. Those with flat feet or unusually high arches are especially prone to this type of pain.
Luckily, there are easy and effective ways for dealing with shin splints. If you find yourself wincing from shin pain after a workout, try these tips:
- Rest! The injury was caused by overworking, so slow down. Take a few days off from training, or switch to a lower-impact workout like swimming or bicycling. When you return to regular training, keep the low-impact workout in your routine (but always introduce any new activity slowly).
- Apply ice therapy to the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes, 4-8 times per day for several days. This will help reduce inflammation, which will in turn reduce pain.
- If rest and ice don’t work, try an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen, which is known to reduce swelling, which will in turn reduce pain.
- If you’re still in pain, you might want to consult a doctor, who can do an X-ray and make sure there isn’t a larger problem. The doctor might recommend physical therapy if your shin splints have been keeping you from your regular activities for too long.
- You can resume your normal activities (gradually) when the injured leg is as flexible as the other, when the injured leg seems as strong as the other, and when you can jog, sprint, and jump without any pain.
To prevent shin splints in the first place, try these tips:
- Always wear the right footwear for the sport you’re playing; each type of shoe has extra support in certain areas, based on the usual movements of the sport. If you’re a runner, don’t schedule a hard training session on your first day with new shoes (they need to be broken in) and always replace your running shoes after about 350-500 miles of use, even if they don’t look worn.
- If you have flat feet, fallen arches, or high arches, consider using arch supports; you can buy them at the drugstore and they slip right inside your shoes. For more serious foot-structure issues, consult a podiatrist, who can recommend more advanced orthotics if you need them.
- If you’re prone to shin splints, try wearing a neoprene sleeve over your shin while training. These products support the area and keep it warm.
- Regularly stretch your calves and Achilles to keep them flexible.
- Always integrate a variety of exercises into your workouts, rather than doing only one activity all of the time. If you’re a tennis player, try swimming. Soccer players might want to try cycling.
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