When you hear about sports and activity related injuries, most people assume that these have to be caused by an accident or mistake. However, sometimes your body just isn't ready for the level of activity you're asking for. Sometimes just going for a long walk after a period of inactivity can lead to a surprising amount of pain and loss of function in one or both legs. In fact, this can happen to anyone upping the stress they put on their legs whether it's going from inactivity to walking, walking to running, or even just running on grass to running on asphalt at your normal pace and intensity.
While often your legs are perfectly capable of handling an increase in demand, every now and then you will land too hard on your shins or the muscles will tighten up too quickly causing them to swell and press against the bone. In either case (sometimes both at once) this results in in swelling, pain, loss of strength end flexibility
While often your legs are perfectly capable of handling an increase in demand, every now and then you will land too hard on your shins or the muscles will tighten up too quickly causing them to swell and press against the bone. In either case (sometimes both at once) this results in in swelling, pain, loss of strength, tenderness to the touch, and possible numbness or weakness of the feat. If regular or slightly intensified running, walking, jumping, landing, or dancing has resulted in any of these symptoms, you are probably suffering from a condition known as Shin Splints.
Causes of Shin Splints
Unlike most other sports injury classifications, the term 'shin splints' is surprisingly vague and can refer to a number of medical causes that result in a similar set of symptoms and are usually healed using the same techniques. The most common cause of shin splints is when you work your legs too hard walking or running (but also jumping or landing) without warming up properly. Because you're muscles aren't yet soft and stretchy, they take the extra stress badly, tightening and swelling instead. This can damage your muscles and they will need time to recover before you can return to upping your workout routine.
The second, less common and much more serious cause of shin splints is caused by repeated heavy impacts, usually while running on hard surfaces with insufficient foot padding. This can result in several tiny fractures in your shin bones, revealing the source of the condition name. When the fractures form, your shins begin to hurt quite badly and swelling can occur. Given rest and recovery time, these tiny fractures will heal on their own but if you continue to hammer them with hard impacts, they can worsen into complete or stress fractures and a lot more treatment and recovery time.
Tired Calves vs Shin Splints
When you up your walking, running, or other leg-related exercise routines there is always a chance that your calves will hurt afterward. This is a natural consequence of strength building and soon that ache will turn into strong, stretchy new muscle tissue. However, it's important not to confuse this productive ache with the symptoms of shin splints. If you experience a combination of the following symptoms beyond mild swelling and aching in the exercised part of the calf, it's time to seek medical attention and enter recovery.
Shin Splint Symptoms
- Shin pain after a fall or hard step
- Shin feels hot or is visibly swollen
- Pain in the shin even when resting
- Dull ache in the front part of the lower leg - not the back where the calf muscle is
- Pain that develops during exercise
- Pain on either side of the shin bone
- Muscle pain
- Pain along the inner part of the lower leg
- Tenderness and soreness (often in response to touch pressure) along the inner part of the lower leg
- Swelling in the lower leg
- Numbness and weakness in the feet
Treating Shin Splints
Your first treatment action when a new, unexpected pain arises as the result of exercise is to see your doctor. They will help you assess how serious the injury is and whether or not special treatment methods are required to recover from it. If you're experiencing acute pain in the shins themselves, tell your doctor so they can check your bone for fractures. If your bone is alright, you are mostly likely clear to recover at home with normal sports injury methods.
First and foremost, stop doing whatever caused the shin splints in the first place and ramp down on the leg activity in general for a while. This shouldn't be hard to do because shin splints usually result in a combination of pain and weakness that discourages excessive physical activity. That said, don't push it. Your leg needs time to completely heal and therefore requires a lot of actual rest. The good news is that nothing's broken so you can continue to move around carefully. Other than the RICE (rest, ice/heat, compression, elevation) principles, a warm compression brace is a great way relieve pain by relaxing your muscles while simultaneously redistributing pressure put on your shin with each step. Most are slender enough to wear comfortably under your clothes. Another option if a brace is out of the question is pre-cut kinesiology tape.
Knowing when a shin splint is completely healed can be determined best by comparing the injured leg to the uninjured one in terms of functionality and comfort. You are most likely completely healed when your injured leg is no longer tender to the touch and is equally flexible and supportive compared to the undamaged leg.
Shin Splint Prevention
Whether you've suffered from shin splints in the past or simply want to keep this particular condition off your list, there are several precautionary measures you can take to reduce your chances of over stressing your shins and calves when upping your workout. Start by wearing comfortable shoes with good support, especially if you have flat feet (collapsible arches) which an make shin splints a bigger risk. Always warm up before going for a run or beginning a new routine and increase your exercise intensity gradually rather than all at once.
Also, don't forget that muscles need conditioning. Engaging in strength training to build calf strength will help you up your game without increasing your risk for shin splints. Finally, if your shins start to hurt, stop exercising (don't push through it) and return to less intense exercise, warmups, and strength training before intensifying again.
Shin splints are usually a minor activity related injury but it can take weeks to recover, especially if you don't stop exercising when the pain starts. Remember that it's always better to spend a few extra days preparing for a new training regime with strength and flexibility training rather than having to spend any time completely off your routine in recovery. Unfortunately, shin splints are particularly common because they can happen to anyone upping their walking or running exercises, even if their planned activity isn't that intensive by normal standards.