So, you’re eyeing to join next year’s marathon. Deciding to up your game, you begin to train intensively and in more challenging conditions. You start running uphill, blazing across the hard pavement and treading along rugged mountain trails as you’ve never done before.
You feel somewhat invincible, having pushed yourself past your limits… until a debilitating pain brings you to your knees.
Considered to be the most common sports-related condition that runners and athletes experience, shin splints can happen to anyone who’s physically active. Many cases remain untreated, with some deciding to “run or exercise it out”. The smarter ones, though, use gel packs for comfort and faster healing.
The recovery period for recent cases can be as short as two weeks, while those who have been suffering for a long time could take longer to heal – sometimes as long as three to six months.
Don’t let shin splints bring you down. In this article, we will help you understand what causes them, how to prevent them and what you can do to fight back.
What is a shin splint?
Shin splints refer to pain or inflammation of the lower leg, felt along the inside or the front edges of the shin, including the calf muscles. It is one of the most common problems associated with exercise and running.
Also called medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints are common for neophyte runners and people who play sports like soccer, basketball, tennis and other games that put extra stress on the shins. Dancers also suffer from it.
What causes a shin splint?
Continuous excessive training, muscle imbalances, poor running technique, wearing wrong workout shoes and intensive training on hard and uneven surfaces are among the few factors that could trigger shin splints.
Shin splints occur after repeated stress on the shinbone and the surrounding tissues. The bones and muscles become overworked because of the drastic changes in physical activity.
Simply put, steady stress, pushing your body too hard or relentless training can eventually lead to shin splints. Biologically, flat-footed persons are more prone to shin splints because improper foot arches cause additional stress on the lower leg.
What are the symptoms of shin splints?
Dull, aching pain or a slight discomfort that turns sore and tender along your lower leg could be the first few indications of a shin splint.
If you disregard these symptoms and continue to run or train, the pain might become more unbearable before, during or after exercise. Your skin may display signs of inflammation like redness and swelling.
How does rest help?
Shin splints are easy to manage if treated early.
As one of the key components of the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) method, rest is equally important in relieving shin splints. At the onset of the injury, stop all physical activities that put pressure on your lower legs.
While it is tempting to continue running or playing sports despite the pain, experts warn that shin splints might become a chronic problem if you push your body too much and refuse to take a break.
Should I use ice or heat to treat shin splints?
To lessen the confusion about when to use ice or heat treatment, it helps to remember that cold therapy is best for acute injuries such as strains, sprains or inflammation. For chronic injuries like arthritis, muscle tension, soreness and stiffness, heat therapy works best.
In shin splints, the calf muscles, tendons and tissue surrounding the shinbone are inflamed. As such, treat shin splints as you would any injury. In other words, it is better to put ice on it.
Ice helps reduce the swelling and temporarily numbs pain receptors while the body starts its healing process. Ice your shin and calves for 15 to 20 minutes on and off, several times a day for two to three days.
Ice and massage for shin splints
You may complement ice therapy with massage techniques. Deep tissue massages, which require for a therapist to press deep into your soft tissues, and trigger points massages, which involve applying pressure on points that could be causing pain, are viable options.
These massage techniques help ease muscle tightness faster, but most people find massages uncomfortable and even painful.
Magic Gel shin splint ice packs come with a cryoball that can be placed in the freezer and used cold to massage your lower leg. Combining a deep tissue massage with cold therapy, the cryoball is handy and can be used anytime.
To use, press the cryoball on your calf muscles, avoiding the shin bone. Roll it up and down the medial (central) and lateral (side) portions of your calf, focusing on the problem areas. You can do this for at least one minute for each leg.
When to use heat therapy for shin splints
Around two to three days after exclusively applying ice, and when swelling has subsided, you can apply heat packs on your shins. Apart from easing tightened muscles, the heat allows more oxygen-rich blood to flow through the injured area, promoting faster healing.
How to avoid shin splints
As shin splints develop over time, prevention is better than a cure. If you are not a victim of frequent shin splints yet, keep it that way by heeding the following tips:
- Start slow – New to running or exercising? Do not overstress your lower leg muscles or engage in intense workouts immediately.
- Check your shoes – If you have been using the same shoes for years because it looks cool, you need to consider shopping for new ones. Function should be your main deciding factor. Form and fashion are secondary. Choose a pair that is appropriate for your training and your feet.
For instance, flat-footed people are more prone to shin splints. There are orthotic products that offer arch support with pronation (feet that roll inward during foot strike) and supination (foot strike on the outer edge of the foot).
- Softer surface, less impact – When running and walking, your lower leg muscles, bones and joints absorb the impact of your feet landing on the pavement. Softer surfaces like treadmills, the beach and dirt trails are less harsh on your shins. As much as possible, look for softer surfaces to run on to avoid overstressing your shins.
- Rest – Just as you need to take some rest following shin splints, it is also important to relax in order to avoid them. Treat your body like a machine – it will overheat or break down if it works continuously 24/7. Optimal performance can be achieved not by always moving, but also by resting whenever needed.
- Useful exercises – Certain exercises and stretches could help prevent shin splints from happening. With the use of foam rollers and stretch bands, these activities may be done before and after running or playing sports.
Magic Gel shin splint ice packs come with a cryoball and a stretch band that aids in strengthening the muscles around the shin. An instructional booklet that shows you how to recover swiftly from shin splints, post-surgery rehabilitation, runner’s knee and calf and shin bone damage is also included in the set.
- Compression socks or sleeves – These are not magic products meant to heal shin splints overnight, but compression socks or sleeves can help decrease the strain on the bones and muscles in your lower leg. It also helps maintain body alignment, reduces muscle movement and ensures ample blood flow.
With these functions, compression socks and sleeves can be used to prevent or mitigate shin splints.
Signs of healed shin splints
Although healing times vary from one person to another, it takes about three to six months for most seasoned athletes or runners to completely recover from shin splints.
To know whether you can go back to doing the things you love, or continue to take things in stride, consider the following indications:
- Flexibility – Your affected leg is as flexible as your other leg.
- Strength – Both of your legs feel equally strong.
- Absence of pain – It no longer hurts when you push hard on the spots that used to be painful. You can jog, sprint and jump pain-free.
Even if your shin splints have healed, the condition may recur anytime. It is always best to keep gel packs nearby, as they are your best tools in dealing with pain and inflammation at home.
Health considerations when using cold therapy
Before using cold therapy, make sure you don’t have serious health conditions that affect your sensory perception or circulatory system, such as diabetes, dermatitis, vascular, neuropathic and cardiovascular diseases.
If, for some reason, your symptoms persist or worsen in three days or more, it is best to book an appointment with your doctor.
Shin splints do not mean the end of your running or athletic career. With enough rest and proper pain and inflammation management, shin splints will eventually go away.
Do you have anything to share about your experience and advice on shin splints?
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