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Shin Soreness & Shin Splints

Shin soreness and shin splints are terms used to refer to a pain in the front lower leg. This could be because of:

  • The muscles on the front, outer part of the leg being strained, or partly torn, by a sudden awkward movement. Technically known as medial tibial stress syndrome
  • A direct blow to the tibia (shin bone)
  • Stress fracture
  • Swelling of the Posterior or Anterior Tibial muscles within their containing sheath. (Compartment Syndrome)

Causes

While there are many causes of shin splints, they can all be categorized into two main groups: Overload (or training errors), and Biomechanical Inefficiencies. Weak or inhibited gluteal muscles can cause shin splints.

Overload (or training errors)

Shin splints are commonly associated with sports that require a lot of running. It is not the running itself, but the sudden shock force of repeated landings and change of direction that causes the problem. When the muscles and tendons become fatigued and overloaded, they lose their ability to absorb the damaging shock force.

Other overload causes include:

  • Exercising on hard surfaces, like concrete
  • Exercising on uneven ground
  • Beginning an exercise program after a long lay-off period
  • Increasing exercise intensity or duration too quickly
  • Exercising in worn out or ill fitting shoes
  • Excessive uphill or downhill running
  • Return following injury without adequate build up

Biomechanical Inefficiencies

The major biomechanical inefficiency contributing to shin splints is that of flat feet. Flat feet lead to a second biomechanical inefficiency called over-pronation. Pronation occurs just after the heal strikes the ground. The foot flattens out, and then continues to roll inward. Over-pronation occurs when the foot and ankle continue to roll excessively inward. This excessive inward rolling causes the tibia to twist, which in-turn, over stretches the muscles of the lower leg.

Other biomechanical causes include:

  • Poor running mechanics
  • Tight, stiff muscles in the lower leg
  • Running with excessive forward lean
  • Running with excessive backwards lean
  • Landing on the balls of your foot
  • Running with your toes pointed outwards

Strain, tear or fracture

  • A muscle strain or tear - you would feel the pain immediately whenever you contract or stretch the muscle
  • Stress fracture - requires specialist diagnosis. As the tibial tendons lie close to the shinbone it is often difficult to distinguish between posterior tibial tendon strain and a tibial stress fracture.

The two problems can also co-exist as the stress fracture is caused by excessive pull from the tendons against the bone, and tendon tightness and pain may be a protective spasm around the area of a fracture.

Compartment syndrome can be caused by a tear in the enclosed muscles, so the two problems can co-exist.

Compartment Syndrome

Muscles are enclosed by a containing sheath, which is inelastic. The muscles tend to swell due to injury, or simple overuse, so each time you use the muscles they will swell further and create extra pressure in the sheath. With compartment syndrome pain you normally only feel these pains when you have been running or walking for long enough to bring on the muscle swelling. You feel pain when exercising, but it eases quickly when you stop, and the muscle swelling reduces. The pain may be felt in the:

  • Posterior tibial muscle - behind the inner side of the shin mainly in its central and upper part
  • Anterior tibial muscle - upper outer part of the shin

Telling one from the other

A stress fracture tends to have pain that runs up and down a region of the lower leg near the tibia and if you tap the tibia, some pain may be felt. If you have numbness in the lower leg then this is generally associated with compartment syndrome.

How to Treat Shin Splints

The basic treatment for shin splints is no different to most other soft tissue injuries. Immediately following the onset of any shin pain, the R.I.C.E.R. regime should be applied. This involves Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation, and Referral to an appropriate professional for an accurate diagnosis.

  • Stop the activity
  • Apply ice wrapped in a damp towel for 10 minutes every 2 hours
  • Apply a compression bandage to help minimise the swelling to the tissues
    • compression is not advisable for compartment syndrome as it may increase the pressure and cause further damage
  • Elevate your legs to help limit blood flow and prevent use of the muscles
  • Rest the injured part as much as possible to allow the healing of damaged tissues
  • Refer to an appropriate professional for an accurate diagnosis

It is critical that the R.I.C.E. regime be implemented for at least the first 48 to 72 hours. Doing this will give you the best possible chance of a complete and full recovery.

The next phase of treatment (after the first 48 to 72 hours) involves a number of physiotherapy techniques. The application of heat and massage is one of the most effective treatments for speeding up the healing process of the muscles and tendons.

Determine if the shin splints are due to a biomechanical problem, or an overload problem and take appropriate steps to remove the cause.

The 7 Step Shin Splints Treatment System

Fixing your shin splints, and more importantly, making sure you never have a relapse is all about an integrated treatment plan that walks you step-by-step through the recovery process.

The 7 Step Shin Splints Treatment System is based on a progressive plan of rehabilitation techniques and conditioning exercises, stretches and drills to fully rehabilitate your injured legs, each step building on the previous one.

shin splints

Page Reference

The reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2000) Shin Soreness and Shin Splints [WWW] Available from: http://www.brianmac.co.uk/shin.htm [Accessed

Associated Pages

The following Sports Coach pages should be read in conjunction with this page: