A 2015 research states that shin splints account for up to 50 percent of lower leg injuries suffered by athletes playing specific sports.
While dancers, military personnel and athletes are at risk of developing shin splints, up to 20 percent of runners will experience it at some point, according to the same research.
Novice runners are affected more than seasoned marathoners, perhaps because they did not heed experts’ advice to avoid running too far and too fast too soon.
If you’re a recreational runner who’s forced to a screeching halt because of shin splints, know that it is not the end of your racing career. We’ll run you through the RICE method to address your shin splints, so you can sprint back into action in no time.
What are shin splints?
Shin splints refer to an injury or inflammation in one of your tibial (shin) muscles, where it attaches to the large bone in your lower leg, or shinbone. Medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), these occur when repetitive stress on the shin exceeds the body’s capacity to recover.
Shin splint symptoms
Swelling and discomfort, usually felt through sharp pain, can happen anywhere on the front portion of your shin (the tibialis anterior muscle) or the inside (tibialis posterior muscle). Many of the muscles of the lower leg, such as the calves and the smaller muscles above the ankle, insert along the tibia.
Causes of shin splints
In the absence of a professional diagnosis, stress overload usually takes the blame for shin splints. Some factors that can cause overuse of the lower leg muscles, bones and joints include:
- Anatomical issues – Weak lower muscles in the hips and calves, being flat-footed or having high foot arches, a small calf muscle circumference, poor ankle mobility and a lower bone density can all contribute to overloading stress on your lower tibial region.
- Incorrect running technique – Poor running form (i.e over-striding, too much heel striking, etc.) and improper footwear worsens the stress on your lower legs, bones and joints since they overwork to balance your body.
- High impact activities or running on difficult terrain – Running on hard or unstable surfaces, whether uphill or downhill, can put an added strain on your front leg muscles.
Most of these problems are addressed after consultation with a physical therapist, orthopedic doctor or a sports physician. These professionals can check for stress fractures, provide you with valuable advice on how to adjust your gait and recommend orthotic inserts or functional shoes.
As a self-care technique, the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) therapy method is the most important step in banishing your shin splint problems.
Shin splints treatment: The RICE Method
Seasoned athletes and novice runners alike rely on the RICE method to relieve pain, inflammation and discomfort.
Since its introduction in 1978 by sports doctor and former marathoner Dr. Gabe Mirkin, the RICE method remains the most practiced first-aid procedure for sprains, strains, bruises and other minor injuries that affect the muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Experiencing pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. Experts advise individuals to take heed and stop all forms of physical activities that cause stress on the shins.
Because shin splints develop after repeated stress, continuing with your high-impact activities will subject your lower leg to further strain.
Rest from two weeks to a month or wait until most of your lower legs’ functions have been restored and the pain has substantially reduced.
Instead of going back to running or other strenuous sports activities, you can cross-train or do other low impact sports like swimming or cycling.
Using cold temperature to treat various conditions, or cryotherapy, was initiated by ancient Egyptians as early as 2,500 B.C. Thousands of years later, it is still widely used to control inflammation and pain.
At the onset of an injury, cold therapy helps numb the pain by slowing down the nerves from sending pain messages to the brain. To control the swelling, cold therapy constricts the vessels, preventing the accumulation of fluids in the affected area.
Appropriately shaped shin splint ice packs offer the best icing option as they fit your shins perfectly and offer proper cold compression to help you heal faster.
Wear them on and off for 20 minutes each time, every two to three hours for the first 48 hours following your injury.
Tip: Ice should not be directly placed on the skin. This will help you avoid ice burns. Adding a layer of thin cloth in between your skin and the pack helps you avoid the possibility of damaging your skin and tissues.
Persons with sensory and blood circulation issues are discouraged from using cold therapy because they are more susceptible to ice burns but may not even know (or feel) it.
Shin splint treatment tools come in various forms. These can be used at home and a few are handy enough to use on the go. As a rule of thumb, it is best to have at least two combinations of each product below:
- Ice packs – These gel-filled reusable packs are the first choice in treating minor injuries. Choose gel packs that remain flexible even when frozen and are shaped to conform to your shins. With proper use, you can expect results in as short as three days to one week.
- Ice bath – If you want to up your cold therapy game, give your shins an ice bath. Fill a container or bucket with chilly water and ice and immerse your lower leg in it. Limit your ice bath for 20 minutes to avoid ice burns.
- Ice therapy machine – It may look like a torture device, but ice therapy machines are serious in delivering constant cold to the shin. To use one, attach the pads on the affected body part and secure with a strap. Icy water is pushed from the reservoir to the tubings, then to the pad, to relieve inflammation and pain.
- Cold roller – Combining cold therapy and massage makes cold rollers very effective in relieving shin splints. These methods reduce the pain by relaxing the muscles and working through the soft tissues.
The Magic Gel Shin Splint Ice Packs come with a cryoball to massage your lower leg.
To get the most out of the cryoball, press it 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. Do this for at least one minute for each leg.
Too much swelling can lead to loss of function, severe pain and blood flow reduction, if left unattended.
A faster and more effective method to reduce swelling is the application of gel packs complemented by proper cold compression.
If you’re using an elastic bandage, wrap the affected area starting on the part furthest from your heart. For shin splints, this means the lowest part of your leg, and working your way up. You will have wrapped your shin correctly when the affected area ends up in the middle of the wrap.
Make sure the compression is not too tight to avoid disrupting blood flow and making the swelling worse.
Tip: Signs that the band is too tight include increased pain, numbness or tingling. If you feel any of these, loosen the bandage.
Compression stockings, socks or sleeves offer alternatives to control swelling and may help prevent shin splints. They may be less effective than shin splint ice packs, though.
Swollen tissue presses against nerves that send pain signals to the brain, and this leads to a throbbing pain. To counter this, keep your shins above the level of your heart, especially when lying down.
Elevation to the level of the heart or above allows for excess fluid to be pumped back into the blood vessel system, which will help in preventing further swelling. If not feasible, just raise your lower leg as high as possible.
Tip: Use pillows to prop your lower leg.
What to do after RICE method
About two to three days after using the RICE method, it’s time to put heat packs on your shins. Heat relaxes the muscles and promotes blood flow for faster recovery.
You may start performing light physical activities or exercises at this stage.
Shin splint stretches and exercises
Improve muscle strength and flexibility by doing shin and toe stretches, as well as calf raises and other light exercises.
The complete set of Magic Gel Shin Splint Ice Packs also include a cryoball, a resistance band and an instructional exercise booklet to help you with your injury rehabilitation.
When to see a doctor
If pain and inflammation become worse, or if you develop symptoms like fever, dizziness and vomiting, call your doctor immediately for an appointment.
By performing the RICE method followed by stretching and light exercises, a shin splint will eventually go away.
Replacing your running shoes, purchasing orthotic inserts and taking it easy could also help you get back on your feet in no time.
Do you have any questions about shin splints and gel pack use? Don’t hesitate to drop us a line.