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Shin Splints: How to treat and prevent lower leg pain

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Exerting too much stress on your shin bone can cause inflammation and pain, commonly known as a shin split. This can occur after running or any other sport activity that puts pressure on your lower limbs. Prevent future injuries by learning its symptoms and how to better manage or treat shin splints.

What causes shin splints and who can get it?

There are various causes of shin splits, including excessive force, aggravation of minor bone fractures, improper training techniques and footwear, flat foot syndrome, and inadequate rest.

If you start and end a workout without warm up or cool down stretches, this can increase your risk of injuring your shin bone. Similarly, those with flat feet are also at increased risk of a shin splint as the impact of a step makes your foot’s arch collapse.

shin splints symptoms

Shin splints are most likely to result from muscle weakness in your ankles, hips, and core muscles. This may happen to people who frequently take part in strenuous physical activity or stop-start sports such as soccer or basketball. For instance, people with flat feet, athletes, women, dancers, or military recruits are all prone to shin splints.

It could also be due to low bone density arising from insufficient calcium intake, thus increasing susceptibility to stress.

Consult a doctor immediately if you feel severe pain in your shin after a fall or accident, or if you have a hot or swollen shin that hurts even when you are resting. If left untreated, a shin splint could eventually develop into a fracture.

What do shin splits feel like?

signs of shin splints

The symptoms of shin splint typically include a dull ache on the shin bone, along the front part of your lower leg. The pain usually originates from the inside of the shin and is caused by tissue inflammation. In medical terms, this is known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), and is classified as a stress injury to the bone.

You may also feel some swelling in the lower leg, as well as a feeling of numbness and weakness in your feet.

The repetitive stress and force exerted from running can damage the shin bone. This damage may extend to the muscles and surrounding tissue that wraps around the shin bone, resulting in severe pain.

Treatments for shin splints

There are a holistic range of treatment options, ranging from conventional treatment to surgery, to help you recover from a shin splint. Usually, sport doctors will recommend conventional treatments for sport injuries to reduce the swelling and pain – here are some tips on how you can treat shin splits on your own.

rice method shin splints

The RICE Treatment

Your doctor may recommend the RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) method to address any pain or swelling you may be experiencing. When this method fails to treat the injury, only then will your doctor recommend a stronger course of treatment.

  • Rest

Refrain from heavy physical activity for at least 2 weeks to allow your shin to heal. You may still engage in activities like walking or swimming which do not place as much stress on your legs.

  • Ice

Use an ice pack or cold compress on the shin to ease shin pain and swelling. This should be done for half an hour, every 4 hours for at least 3 to 4 days until the pain has disappeared.

  • Compression

Wear elastic compression bandages to limit swelling and damage. Compressing the muscles over the shin bone will minimize movement and support the muscle.

  • Elevation

Elevate your leg for at least 10 minutes using a pillow to reduce stress on the muscles. This will help to treat swelling and inflammation and improves blood circulation required for recovery. It also helps prevent recurrence of future shin splints.

Anti-inflammatory painkillers can also be taken during this time to alleviate the pain. It is important to follow the RICE procedure so that your shin splint can heal faster, preventing permanent damage. Do check in with your doctor when you can resume your physical activity.

Surgery

It is uncommon to do a surgery to treat shin splints. However, if you are in severe pain with symptoms lasting for many months, your doctor may recommend surgery if other treatments proved ineffective. The procedure is known as a fasciotomy and is usually done under general anaesthesia.

During the surgery, your doctor will make small cuts in the fascial tissue which surround your calf muscles. Since the fascial tissue surrounding the calf muscles is responsible for the pain, doing the surgery will relieve pressure and tightness, reducing pain levels.

surgery for shin splints

If the pain is not caused by muscular weakness, periosteal stripping may be recommended instead. In contrast to fasciotomy, this surgery removes the connective tissue surrounding the shin bone, called the periosteum. As a result, pain resulting from bone inflammation is reduced.

Subsequently, the patient will undergo physical therapy to help with recovery after surgery, to allow gradual resumption of physical activities.

How to prevent shin splints

Some ways to prevent shin splints include:

  • Wearing well-fitted sports attire and shoes
  • Proper pre-exercise warmups and stretching
  • Strength training to build calf muscles
  • Avoiding exercise on uneven terrain
  • Gradually increasing exercise intensity

Use custom-made insoles or orthotics for your shoes if you suffer from flat foot syndrome.

Bottomline

Patience is key for a complete recovery. It is crucial not to resume high-intensity activity while your shin is still healing. Speak to a board-certified sports doctor to find out how to treat your shin splint. Your doctor can administer a bone density test to assess if low bone density is the cause of your injury.

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