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What Are Shin Splints?

Posted Jan 09 2011 10:26am

“Shin splints” is a term used to describe the pain felt between the knee and the ankle after athletic activity, and are considered a cumulative stress disorder rather than an acute injury. This painful condition occurs when muscles and tendons in the lower legs pull on the tibia bone along the shin.

There are several reasons why athletes develop shin splints, but ultimately we can say they develop when the constant stress placed on the joints, bones, and muscles of the lower leg overwhelms the body’s natural ability to recover from trauma.

The most common cause is inflammation of the periostium, the sheath that surrounds the tibia. Traction forces on the periostium from the muscles of the lower leg cause shin pain and inflammation.

  • Pain over the inside lower half of the shin.
  • Pain when the toes or foot are bent downwards.
  • Lumps and bumps may be felt when feeling the inside of the shin bone.
  • Redness over the inside of the shin.
  • Pain at the start of exercise.
  • Pain often returns after activity and may be worse the next morning.
  • Swelling in the front of the lower leg.

Stiff muscles, poor footwear and overuse or overtraining can all cause shin splints in runners and athletes who perform high impact exercise. Injuries often occur due to abnormal movement patterns (biomechanical issues) and training errors.

The following problems are the main causes of shin splints:

  • Inadequate footwear
  • Over-supination of the feet
  • Over-pronation of the feet
  • Increasing training too quickly
  • Decreased flexibility at the ankle joint
  • Running on hard surfaces

The root cause of shin splints can be classified as either muscle-induced or bone-induced.

The muscles that connect to the ankle are covered by fascia, which sort of resembles the skin of a sausage. This fascia that holds the muscle fibers together is quite tough and inelastic. When the muscles expand as a result of exertion, which they naturally do, the resulting pressure causes pain. This type of pain is called exertional compartment syndrome and is found in athletes who play field sports like soccer, lacrosse, basketball, field hockey, or any other sport that requires running on hard surfaces.

Stress reactions and full-blown fractures are most often the cause of bone-related shin splints. The skeleton endures constant pounding when running, and especially when sprinting. For example, repeated or prolonged running over a short period of time can cause microscopic cracks to appear on the bones of the leg. The body can normally repair these cracks pretty easily, but without adequate rest and recovery they can turn into complete stress fractures, or even complete fractures, which can be severe enough to take months of recovery and often requires rehabilitation.

You want to try to avoid shin splints as best you can by taking a proactive stance to your training equipment, training environment, warm ups, and stretching.

For more information, read this post on How to Avoid Shin Splints (coming soon).

Once you have shin splints there are a number of ways to recover from them including RICE, strengthening exercises, stretching exercises, medicine, and supplements.

For more information, read this post on How to Treat Shin Splints (coming soon).



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