Shin splints (also called medial tibial stress syndrome) is a frequent injury that impacts athletes who participate in physical activity or running sports. It is caused by constant trauma to the connective muscle tissue bordering the tibia. It is characterized by pain between the ankle and knee in the lower half of the leg. Runners often suffer from shin splints, as do other athletes who play sports that involve sudden stops and starts (such as tennis or basketball). The most common symptom of shin splints is a pain or soreness along the inner part of your lower leg, between the ankle and knee. There may also be mild swelling. The pain may stop when you stop exercising or running, but it can become continuous over time.
Shin splints are frequently caused by overloading the lower extremity muscles, although sometimes there may be biomechanical irregularities. Weak core muscles or other muscle imbalance can also cause shin splints and other lower-extremity injuries. Increasing intensity and duration of an activity, or just increasing activity in general too quickly can cause shin splints, because the muscles and tendons are unable to take in the impact of the shock force as they become tired and fatigued. This impact is made worse by running downhill or uphill, or on hard surfaces or uneven terrain. Wearing the wrong footwear can also lead to shin splints. Other risk factors include excessive amounts of eccentric muscle activity in the medial shin, very tight calf muscles, and smoking or low fitness. Johns Hopkins Medicine has more information about shin splints.
Most cases of shin splints can be treated at home by self-care. It is important to rest. Avoid activities that cause swelling, pain or discomfort, but do not give up all physical activity. Try low-impact exercises like bicycling and swimming which will help alleviate pressure on your legs. Make sure to avoid running however, as this can make your shin splints worse. It is also important to ice the area that is affected for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Try to do this between 4 and 8 times a day for about a week. Wrap the ice packs in a thin towel to protect your skin from ice burn. This will help reduce swelling and numb the area to ease the pain and discomfort. You should also elevate your shin above the level of your heart and keep it immobilized. Over-the-counter pain medications can be taken to help reduce pain as well.
The time it takes to recover from shin splints varies, and depends on the severity of your shin splints and what you do treatment-wise. It may only take a few days, but in some severe cases may last months. If you treat the injury properly, you should be back in the gym or on the field/track in only a few weeks. Once the symptoms from your shin splints start going away, you can begin the recovery process. If you were exercising without the proper footwear, you need to go out and get proper footwear. Wearing inappropriate footwear can cause shin splints. Your doctor may be able to recommend to you a shoe that is suited for your stride, foot type, and sport. You may also want to consider arch supports, which can help disperse and cushion stress on your shinbones. If you are cross-training, try a sport that places less impact on your shins, like walking, swimming, or cycling. Make sure you start all new activities slowly, and increase intensity and length gradually. If your shin splints were a result of exercising, try to add strength training to your workout. This can help strengthen your calf muscles.