The term “shin splints” can cause some confusion, as the term can refer to general pain in the front of the lower leg (the shin), or to specific pathologies that cause this pain. The term medial tibial stress syndrome more accurately describes this common and painful condition caused by repetitive stress to the lower leg, specifically to muscles that “flex” the foot (dorsiflexors). Pain is felt on the inside (medial side) of one or both shins, and pain can range from mild to debilitating.
Who Gets Shin Splints?
Often considered a “runner’s injury,” shin splints are not choosy about their targets. Anyone engaging in repetitive activities, (usually involving jumping, but see below) can become affected. However, active individuals like dancers, runners, and military personnel are not the only ones susceptible. Because “repetitive stress” is a relative term, shin splints can also occur any time a new activity is introduced that can be considered stressful and repetitive. Fast and/or drastic weight loss or a sudden and significant increase in activity level can also produce painful symptoms since the mechanism of injury is similar.
How Are Shin Splints Treated?
Most sufferers should find relief with the R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) method. Initiating the R.I.C.E. method as soon as symptoms occur can increase the effectiveness of this treatment. Physical therapy treatment methods can include Kinesiotaping and exercises to strengthen the muscles at the back of the leg. Other exercises to help stretch tight areas of the leg or to correct gait deviations may also be recommended. A Physical Therapist or Physical Therapist Assistant can apply Kinesiotape to the front of the shin using prescribed methods that assist the action of the dorsiflexor muscles. This can temporarily alleviate some of the stress caused by overusing them and can allow inflammation to decrease.
Preventing Shin Splints
Shin splints may also arise from a combination of complex medical factors including nutrition and genetics, so this condition is difficult to anticipate except in cases of chronic sufferers. Prevention for shin splints may best be described as treating symptoms as soon as they occur (completing R.I.C.E. method at first sign of pain), complying with Physical Therapist’s recommendations, and modifying activities when symptoms occur.
Sonya Schwab is a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) with extensive experience in dance, circus arts, and aquatic exercise. She currently practices at Chesapeake Bay Aquatic and Physical Therapy’s Timonium and Reisterstown locations.