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Published on April 27, 2018

runner with shin pain

What’s Shin Splint Pain All About?

Too much, too fast – that’s typically what leads to sharp pain in your shins.

Perhaps it was a winter of binge-watching Netflix followed by a new drive to get ready for spring. For athletes, it might come at those first practices of the season.

They also can happen when hip or ankle muscles aren’t strong enough to handle the torque we put on our shins when we run, climb or walk a lot of miles.

Anyone who’s had them can attest to the pain that shin splints bring.

So can it be stopped?

“There’s a discussion in orthopedics on shin splints – do you fix them from the top down, by strengthening the hip muscles, or do you work from the arch of the foot up to them and work on stronger ankles and feet?” said Jonathan Buchanan, MD, Avera Orthopedics. “Both sides have merit. But one approach that will not work is just trying to ‘run through’ the pain.”

Lingering Pain

Buchanan explained that while some shin-splint pain may be from running too hard, too soon, the pain should subside after you’re done with practice or a workout. If it lingers, or if it’s quite intense – waking you up from your sleep intense – you might be facing something worse than a simple case of shin splints.

“If it hurts all day, and that pain remains, it’s more than likely a stress fracture and you should get in to see your doctor,” he said. “Shin splints represent stress at the point where muscles pull on the bone. Stress fractures are serious injuries. If it lingers, it’s indicating something significant – you may have deep pain, down near the bone, and that’s more likely to be a stress fracture.”

Simple soreness is something all who exercise will feel. Shin splints are a level up from it, but a level below stress fractures. When you get shin splints, you have to modulate your level of activity. Pull up short on your miles, or your intensity.

“Adjust your distance to steer clear of the pain, because the pain isn’t ‘good’ or making you a better runner, football player or track star,” he said. “It’s just a sign that you’re going too far.”

Switch Things Up 

To avoid them, you’ll need to cross-train, getting those muscles that might lead to shin splints to cooperate with your tibia and the muscles surrounding them – and that doesn’t mean working on your calves.

“Getting rid of shin splints means getting stronger feet, ankles and hips, so you’ll need to get some lateral, glute-working exercise into your routine,” said Buchanan. “The tension in your shins is like a bow. When it’s pulled back, there’s tension as well as compression on the various areas of the wood. When you’re running or working out, you’re doing the same thing to the muscles and bones of that part of your body. Too much can lead to pain.”

There’s no certain stretch that can keep shin splints away, because they develop from the weakness in the hips or ankles. When those muscles cannot hold things together in the front of your lower leg, micro-tears along the bone-and-muscle connection form and lead to pain. Treatment may include rest and ice, but if it’s severe, it could require more attention.

“Physical therapy aimed at making hips and ankles, as well as arches, all stronger is going to help over time, and an athletic trainer also can help, but it’s a process,” Buchanan said. “In cases where the stress fracture has occurred it may lead to imaging and in some cases, surgical implementation of a rod or nail to address the injury.”

So when you face shin splints, don’t run through them – instead dial back your workout, and work to build stronger muscles in your hips, ankles and feet.

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