Shin splints are a pain

It seems like we’ve sure waited long enough, but the warmer temperatures are finally here, and most of us are thinking about getting outside and enjoying the nice weather.

This time of year, many of us are getting more active, again, and many of us are changing from indoor sports and exercises to the outdoor variety. Depending on what you enjoy you might be walking or running, biking, playing pickleball, golfing or getting involved in any number of outdoor sports and exercise.

You know that I am a huge fan of staying active because of all the important health benefits. Along with staying active, though, comes some risks of injury, and sometimes we bring it on ourselves.

One of those is a problem called medial tibial stress syndrome. I know that’s a mouthful, but you might be familiar with its other name: shin splints.

Do you know what shin splints are and what causes them? Do you know how they’re treated?

They can be very painful and that’s why we’re going to look together, so you’ll be prepared if you or a loved one is diagnosed with shin splints and you will understand the steps you can take to prevent them.

Shin splints is the name that is used for pain that occurs along your shin bone or lower leg between your ankle and your knee. They are one of the most frequent causes of problems in the lower leg and often occur in people who actively exercise or participate in sports, from overuse or from putting repetitive stress on the shin bone and the muscles that attach to the bone.

That said, it’s important to realize that shin splints have many causes.

This time of year can be prime time for shin splints, because they can occur when people suddenly ramp up the intensity of their activity. People are at risk if they haven’t been doing much and suddenly decide to start their favorite warm-weather sport, and they go from little activity to a great deal, with improper preparation.

Another culprit can be the surfaces you run or play other sports on. Running on slanted or uneven surfaces or engaging in a sport on a hard surface, such as concrete, will make you a prime candidate for shin splints.

Another cause that might not seem as obvious is from wearing improper or worn-out shoes. Improper footwear takes a toll, and I want to point this out because it is such a simple issue to resolve, which can help you avoid the pain of shin splints.

One cause of shin splints that you should be aware of is quite a bit different from the others. Some people have a problem called “over-pronation of the foot.” We’ve talked about this issue before. Over-pronation means that, instead of your foot having a normal, slight roll inwards when you walk, it rolls inwards more than is normal. This can lead to shin splints.

When you have shin splints, the muscles swell, and the swelling increases the pressure on the shin bone, which causes pain that can get extremely uncomfortable. When the problem starts, the pain usually comes after exercising or playing sports. What people with shin sprints notice is that, after a while, the pain will come while you’re being active. In bad cases, even walking up the stairs can become very painful.

Diagnosing shin splints is best done by a professional. Some people think they can self-diagnose, but it’s not a good idea. The pain you are feeling can also be caused by a stress fracture. You have to get a proper diagnosis, because that’s the only way you are going to get the treatment you need to heal and move on.

You need to make an appointment to see your medical professional. Write down the details of your problem beforehand. When did you start experiencing pain? Where is the pain occurring? When does the pain occur? Is this a new problem or have you had this problem before?

Write down all the details and remember to write down any other health problems you might have, any medications you are taking and the dosage of each medication. Remember to include any supplements, such as vitamins, or any other over-the-counter medications you regularly take or have just started taking. All that information is very important, so your doctor has a total picture of your situation.

When you see your doctor, it is likely that you will get an examination that might include tests to pinpoint the exact problem. If you are diagnosed with shin splints, it is likely that your treatment plan will include a period of rest. You might be told to keep your leg up to reduce swelling when you are sitting or in bed.

It is also possible that your doctor will suggest you take an anti-inflammatory medicine. If your situation is very severe, your doctor will discuss what he believes is the best approach to resolving the situation. Your doctor may also suggest that you see a physical therapist as part of your treatment program.

A physical therapist can play an important role in helping you heal and giving you the guidance and approaches you need to avoid having another painful episode of shin splints. A physical therapist will work with your doctor to understand your full health picture and have the information needed to develop a customized plan.

It is likely that your first appointment will involve an evaluation by your physical therapist. Your customized treatment plan will likely include specific exercises to build strength in areas such as your calf muscles. You will also likely be given a program for proper warm-up and stretching that will be very important in your treatment program and in avoiding another bout of shin splints in the future.

Shin splints are no fun, but they happen. You can also stub your toe or trip. My point is that whatever you do, don’t stop moving. It makes such a significant difference in your health and quality of life. Staying active is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and those who love you.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.

By Bob Cairo
Special to the Coastal Point