Think about that classic skeleton that used to hang from a stand in your science class. That dry-as-dust model has its uses, but your bones are much more dynamic and alive than that. They are intertwined with all sorts of soft tissue such as ligaments, tendons, muscles, blood vessels, and nerves, not to mention the spongy bone and marrow hiding inside. Shin splints refers to pain that occurs along your tibia, but it could be those nearby tissues that are damaged, rather than the bone itself.
Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (MTSS)
This is the medical term for shin splints, and the stress part of the name is important. This injury occurs when the surface of the tibia, and the fibers that connect it to the muscles in your leg, are stressed repeatedly, such as in running or jumping. It usually happens from doing activity that these tissues are not used to, like if you are sedentary and then suddenly start an exercise program, or if you join the military and start basic training.
Even if you are an experienced runner, you can sustain this injury if you suddenly increase the intensity of your training, incorporate a lot of hill running, or run on a harder surface. Athletes who use quick starts and stops have an increased risk as well (like in soccer, football, or basketball). You could even damage the tissue with a sudden dash after a toddler or pet if you aren’t used to running.
How to Recognize Shin Splints
The main symptom is pain along the inner bone in your lower leg. It may just be a twinge at first, but is often described as an ache, rather than a sharp pain. It will likely come and go with your level of activity. The more you do on the leg, the worse the condition can become, with increasingly frequent throbbing pain, swelling, and tenderness when you run your fingers over the area. If you keep using the leg without letting it heal, you could end up with pain even when you are at rest, and permanent damage to the tissues
How to Treat MTSS
If you love being active, you won’t want to hear this, but in order to heal from this condition, you really need to rest your leg. Your bones and tissues can’t heal while you are constantly using them; they need periods of rest and inactivity to allow time for repair and regeneration.
During your rest, using ice therapy can significantly reduce your pain and swelling. We may give you medications to help with this as well. We may even prescribe a neoprene sleeve to wear on the leg to keep it warmed and support the tissue. Sometimes shin splints can result from poor biomechanics in your feet. Custom orthotics can correct for these, causing your bones to align better and reducing the tension on them and surrounding tissue.
We may refer you to a physical therapist for help in diagnosing faulty mechanics or other issues in your legs. We can also design stretching and strengthening exercises to get your legs in better shape to support your body.
Follow Our Guidelines for Return to Activity
One of the reasons this injury becomes chronic is when you don’t allow it to fully heal before you get back into the swing of things. Healing can take 3 to 6 months or more, so you need patience. You can do other, low-impact aerobic exercise, and also work to condition and stretch your muscles and ligaments. Just don’t do anything strenuous involving weight on your leg before it is completely recovered.
We are here to help diagnose whether your leg pain is shin splints or a stress fracture—another common injury in your lower leg. Once we know the source of your pain, we can tailor a treatment plan to help you heal and get back into action again. Give Rocky Mountain Foot & Ankle Center a call at (303) 423-2520 or contact us through the website to set up an appointment. We look forward to working with you to make your shin pain a thing of the past.
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