Is It Shin Splints or Something Else?

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There was a television show in the 1960s called “To Tell the Truth” in which three contestants tried to convince panelists that they were a certain person. At the end of the show, host Don Cameron would always ask, “Will the real [person’s name] please stand up?” and panelists would find out if they had guessed correctly. It’s a question you might ask about your sore shins: “Will the real shin splints please stand up?” The term has come to be used for any kind of pain in the front of your lower leg. However, there are several possible causes for shin pain, and knowing the right one is crucial to getting the correct treatment.

Shin Splints, or Imposters?

One injury that can cause shin pain is a stress fracture in the large leg bone (tibia). This small crack in the surface of the bone can really hurt, and it is a serious injury that you shouldn’t ignore, but how do you tell the difference? A bone scan may be needed, but you may notice your tibia hurts at a certain spot when you press on it, and the discomfort will often be better after a night’s sleep.

You could also experience pain along the outside of your shin bone, and it could be from a muscle imbalance between the calf and front of your leg. It could also be a more serious condition known as compartment syndrome, where muscles swell up inside a compartment and cause intense pressure and pain. If you have nerve sensations of muscle weakness as well as discomfort, don’t delay getting help. Compartment syndrome is a serious condition that may need surgery to save the health and function of your leg.

The most common cause of shin pain—the “real” shin splints—is medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS). This term describes several possible scenarios: muscles that tear away from the bone slightly, inflamed muscles, or inflammation of the thin tissue layer (periosteum) around the bone. The result is soreness along the inside of the tibia, often in the morning when the muscles have tightened up while at rest.

Why You Get Shin Splints

Your shins absorb a lot of stress when running, or when overpronation or other biomechanical issues cause the muscles to constantly pull where they are attached to the bone. This is aggravated by sudden increase in activity, changes in running surface, lack of strong core and shin muscles, or tight muscles in your calves. Even just running around a track in one direction all the time can put more stress on your dominant leg and damage the tissues. Climbing hills can also stress the muscles if you are not used to it.

Treating Your Sore Legs

One thing most trainers and medical practitioners agree on is how to treat MTTS. It begins with rest. You need to stop running, or pull back from intense training, to allow time for the muscles to heal. If you do walk or jog lightly, make sure you tape the leg or use an elastic bandage to hold the muscle next to the shin and prevent more tearing. You can try cold therapy to alleviate any swelling or pain during this time. You can also see if alternative forms of exercise like biking or swimming can be done without harming the leg further.

Since muscle imbalances and tightness can also contribute to the problem, do some strengthening and stretching to build up core muscles and make your tendons and ligaments more flexible. You can strengthen your shin muscles by lifting your toes up from the floor while standing. Stretches should include those for your Achilles tendon and for the muscles in your calves and shins. We can show you how to do these safely.

When the shin pain has gone, make sure you get back to activity gradually to avoid reinjuring your legs. Run on softer surfaces, avoid hills or slanted surfaces, and check your shoes. You may need a new pair that more evenly support your feet and legs.

As a running enthusiast, Chiropodist Tony Abbott knows all about shin splints and can help you heal. Give Abbott Foot & Ankle Clinic in Collingwood, Ontario, a call at (705) 444-9929 or set up an appointment using our website. We’ll help you get your legs back on track.