What are Shin Splints?

Q: I’m training for the upcoming half-marathon and think I have shin splints. What are they and how can I get better?

A: Shin splints are that throbbing or aching pain in the front of your shin – the front part of your leg right above the ankle – that makes it painful to walk and run. Shin splints are caused by putting too much force on the shin bone and the surrounding connective tissues, which can be a common side effect from running. Shin splints don’t just affect runners – athletes in other sports with a lot of running, such as soccer and basketball, can get them, as can dancers. They can also be caused by wearing flip flops way too much.

Now that you know what causes them, let’s talk about how to relieve the pain. The first thing to do is rest – I know that’s hard when you’re in training mode – but it’s necessary while you’re in pain. Next, you can apply ice to the area for about 20 minutes up to three times a day for several days in a row to see if that helps with the swelling that normally accompanies shin splints. To help with the pain, you can take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as Advil, for a few days.

Once you start feeling better, change up your routine a little bit to prevent the pain from coming back. Try running on a softer surface, such as grass or gravel, rather than concrete. You should also avoid hills since that places additional stress on your shins. To maintain your cardio fitness, you can try biking or swimming.

It’s also important to add stretching to any exercise routine. Try some toe raises and leg presses to strengthen your leg muscles. Another great exercise to try is the heel cord stretch. To do this exercise, stand facing the wall with your unaffected foot forward with a slight bend at the knee. Put your injured leg straight behind you with the heel flat. Keep both heels flat as you press your hips towards the wall. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and then rest for 30 seconds. Start out with one set of 10 five days a week, working up to two sets of 10. This gentle stretching will help strengthen the muscles around your shin and help prevent further injury.

If rest, icing and gentle stretching doesn’t help alleviate the pain, then it’s time to see your physician to rule out anything more serious.

By Judd Pulley, MD, a family practitioner with ThedaCare Physicians-Appleton West with a fellowship in sports medicine.