This lower leg pain can make running impossible
Whether you’re a seasoned runner or just getting started, you may have been sidelined by this common (and frustrating) injury.
Shin splints, also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, cause a nagging pain that is often felt in the front of your lower leg along your tibia (or shinbone) during or after exercise, or when you press on it.
While most people commonly experience bone-related shin pain caused by stress injury or stress fracture, some may experience muscular shin pain caused by a tightening in the shin that worsens during exercise.
Shin splints can disrupt a runner’s training, making it difficult to run or walk. “If you think you have shin splints, it’s important that you don’t ‘push through the pain.’ This can only make matters worse,” notes Dr. Shazad Shaikh, orthopedic sports medicine specialist at Geisinger Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine – Scranton.
Looking for relief? Let’s take a look at what causes shin splints, how you can treat them and prevent them from happening.
What causes shin splints?
“The pain you feel from shin splints is caused by inflammation of the muscles, tendons and bone tissue around your shin,” explains Dr. Shaikh. Some common causes of shin splints are:
- Increasing exercise frequency too quickly
- Poor running form
- Problems with the arch of your foot, or flat feet
- Wearing unsupportive shoes
- Running on hard or incline surfaces
- Tight calf muscles
How to treat shin splints
Most cases of shin splints can be treated with home remedies and some good rest. Try these tips at home:
- Rest and recover. Take a break from running and allow yourself to heal. Want to stay active? Try low-impact activities, such as swimming or stationary cycling.
- Ice your shin. This will help ease pain and swelling. Ice your shin for 20-30 minutes every three to four hours for two to three days, or until the pain is gone. Anti-inflammatory painkillers, like ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin can also help reduce pain.
- Foam roll. If you’re experiencing muscular shin pain, try running your shins and calves over a foam roller several times a day. Massage can help as well.
How long will shin splints last?
Shin splints may take some time to heal, depending on their cause. “It’s not uncommon for shin splints to take three to six months to heal,” says Dr. Shaikh.
“After two to four weeks of rest, if the pain is gone, you can start running again, but be sure to take it slow,” advises Dr. Shaikh. “If the pain returns, stop exercising to avoid injuring yourself.”
You’ll know you’re shin splints are healed when you can jog, sprint, jump or touch the area without pain.
If your shin splints don’t get better, see a doctor or physical therapist who can make sure you don’t have a stress fracture, help identify the cause and ease your pain.
How to prevent shin splints
If you’ve had shin splints before, you most likely want to avoid having them again. Here are a few ways to prevent shin splints:
- Take it slow. Runners, try not to up your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent. Listen to your body and rest when you feel pain. Taking at least one or two rest days per week can reduce your risk of shin splints.
- Vary running surfaces. Running on hard surfaces increases the stress and impact on your muscles, joints and bones. Try running on dirt or grass trails, or treadmill runs once or twice per week.
- Wear the right shoes. Invest in some quality running shoes and insoles, if you have flat feet or need extra cushioning. If your running shoes are getting old, consider replacing them. Ideally, you should replace your running shoes every 300 to 400 miles.
- Look at how you run. When running, the best place to land is the middle of your foot. Try landing mid-sole and then landing through to the front of your toes. This creates less stress and impact on your lower legs.
- Stretch your calf muscles. Tight calf muscles can cause shin splints. Make sure you stretch your calf muscles before and after running (try a lunging calf stretch).
If you get shin splints on a regular basis, a doctor or physical therapist can help you pinpoint the underlying causes and recommend ways to prevent them to keep you doing what you love – running!
Geisinger is a proud sponsor of the Scranton Half Marathon.
Shazad Shaikh, MD, is an orthopaedic sports medicine specialist at Geisinger. Learn more about orthopaedic care at Geisinger.
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