If you’re a jogger, you are probably familiar with the pain of shin splints – muscular pain that occurs immediately after the heel strikes the ground during running. The term “shin splints” is used to refer to pain (and occasionally swelling) in the lower leg.
The pain may be described as tenderness (especially when the area is touched), aching or throbbing, and normally occurs along the inside of the shin, but may also radiate across to the outside.
The pain is generally at its worst at the start of a run, but may be relieved as the body warms up. (Constant pain may indicate the presence of a stress fracture of the shin, and pain that recurs after running may indicate tendonitis).
Any sudden or repetitive stress to the lower leg can lead to shin splints, and people who use their legs a lot, including athletes, dancers, aerobic enthusiasts and bike riders, are particularly susceptible. Exercising on hard surfaces, such as running on concrete or dancing on an unyielding floor contributes to the condition, as does wearing unsupportive or poorly cushioned shoes.
The problem is caused by fatigue and inflexibility of the calf muscles which strains the tendons, and may cause them to tear.
Structural and functional problems of the feet and legs, such as over-pronation (where the feet turn inwards) and flat feet also increase the stress on the connective tissues of the leg.
The minerals magnesium and calcium are essential for healthy muscle function and may help to relieve the muscular pain of shin splints.
Bromelain is an enzyme derived from pineapples which has an anti-inflammatory action on connective tissue.
Most treatments focus on rest to allow the tissues to heal, followed by a program of exercises to prevent recurrence. For best results, treatment should commence as soon as possible after the symptoms are felt.
Crutches are occasionally used to keep weight off the injured leg.
It is important to ice the area after exercise (20 minutes on, then 20 minutes off), and to be disciplined about stretching the area before, during and after exercise. You can do this by standing on a step and allowing the heel of one foot to hang over the edge. Using the other foot for balance, push down on the heel of the foot and stretch out the muscles and tendons in your calf. Hold this for 30 seconds, release, and change legs. Each leg should be stretched several times.
Wrapping your leg in an elastic bandage to compress the tissues can help with the pain, as can lying on your back with your legs elevated against a wall.
Always wear well-fitting, properly cushioned and supported footwear when jogging or playing sports, and avoid hard surfaces. If you are exercising more than a couple of times a week, be sure to change your shoes about every 8 months.
Protect your muscles by doing stretching exercises as described above before, during and after exercising.
Walking and running outside are less likely to cause shin splints than exercising on a treadmill, as the momentum of moving forward absorbs some of the impact on your shins.
Consult your healthcare professional if shin pain persists – it is possible that you have tendonitis or a stress fracture.