Shin Pain, Shin Splints and Shin Splints Exercises and Stretches
Learn treatment and prevention tips for shin splints, plus effective shin splints stretches and exercises.
The term “Shin splints” is commonly used to describe lower leg pain. However, shin splints are only one of several conditions that affect the lower leg. The most common causes of lower leg pain are: general shin soreness; shin splints; and stress fractures. For the purpose of this article, I’ll only be addressing the first two. I’ll save the topic of stress fractures for another issue.
Before I move on to shin splints, I want to quickly cover the topic of general shin soreness. Shin soreness is simply an overuse problem. By including adequate rest in your training calendar, and using the R.I.C.E.R. regimen when pain does occur, you’ll be able to overcome 95 percent of all general shin soreness within about 72 hours. For lower leg pain that goes beyond general shin soreness, a more aggressive approach must be taken.
What are Shin Splints?
Although the term “shin splints” is often used to describe a variety of lower leg problems, it actually refers specifically to a condition called Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (MTSS). To better understand shin splints, or MTSS, an understanding of the muscles, tendons and bones involved is required.
As you can see from the diagram to the right, there are many muscles and tendons that make up the lower leg, or calf region. It’s a complex formation of inter-weaving and over-crossing muscles and tendons.
The main components of the lower leg that are affected by the pain associated with shin splints are:
- The Tibia and Fibula. These are the two bones in the lower leg. The tibia is situated on the medial, or inside of the lower leg. While the fibula is situated on the lateral, or outside of the lower leg.
- There are also a number of muscles that attach to the tibia and fibula. It’s these muscles, when overworked, that pull on the tibia and fibula and cause the pain associated with shin splints.
Specifically, the pain associated with shin splints is a result of fatigue and trauma to the muscles, tendons and fascia where they attach to the tibia and fibula. In an effort to keep the foot, ankle and lower leg stable, the muscles exert a great force on the tibia and fibula. This excessive force can result in the tendons and fascia being partially torn away from the bone.
What Causes Shin Splints?
While there are many causes of shin splints, they can all be categorized into two main groups. Overload (or training errors), and Biomechanical Inefficiencies.
Overload (or training errors): Shin splints are commonly associated with sports that require a lot of running or weight bearing activity. However, it is not necessarily the added weight or force applied to the muscles and tendons of the lower leg, but rather the impact force associated with running and weight bearing activities.
In other words, it’s not the running itself, but the sudden shock force of repeated landings and change of direction that causes the problem. When the muscles and tendons become fatigued and overloaded, they lose their ability to adequately absorb the damaging shock force.
Other overload causes include:
- Exercising on hard surfaces, like concrete;
- Exercising on uneven ground;
- Beginning an exercise program after a long lay-off period;
- Increasing exercise intensity or duration too quickly;
- Exercising in worn out or ill fitting shoes; and
- Excessive uphill or downhill running.
Biomechanical Inefficiencies: The major biomechanical inefficiency contributing to shin splints is that of flat feet. Flat feet lead to a second biomechanical inefficiency called over-pronation. Pronation occurs just after the heel strikes the ground; the foot flattens out and then continues to roll inward.
Over-pronation occurs when the foot and ankle continue to roll excessively inward. This excessive inward rolling causes the tibia to twist, which in-turn, over stretches the muscles, tendons and fascia of the lower leg.
Other biomechanical causes include:
- Poor running mechanics;
- Tight, stiff muscles in the lower leg;
- Running with excessive forward or backwards lean;
- Landing on the balls of your foot; and
- Running with your toes pointed outwards.
How to Prevent Shin Splints!
Prevention, rather than cure, should always be your first aim. I was very surprised when researching this topic at the number of articles that totally neglected any mention of preventative measures. They all talked of treatment and cure, but only one out of twenty took the time to address the issue of prevention in any detail.
Even before any sign of shin soreness appears there are a number of simple preventative measures that can be easily implemented.
Since about half of all lower leg problems are caused by biomechanics inefficiencies, it makes sense to get the right advice on footwear. Your feet are the one area you should not “skimp” on. The best advice I can give you concerning footwear is to go and see a qualified podiatrist for a complete foot-strike, or gait analysis. They will be able to tell you if there are any concerns regarding the way your foot-strike or gait is functioning.
After your foot-strike has been analysed, have your podiatrist, or competent sports footwear sales person recommend a number of shoes that suit your requirements. Good quality footwear will go a long way in helping to prevent many lower leg problems.
Apart from good footwear, what else can you do? I believe the following three preventative measures are not only very effective, but crucial.
Firstly, a thorough and correct warm up will help to prepare the muscles and tendons for any activity to come. Without a proper warm up the muscles and tendons will be tight and stiff, which may limit blood flow to the lower legs and result in a lack of oxygen and nutrients for those muscles. Before any activity be sure to thoroughly warm up all the muscles and tendons that will be used during your sport or activity. Click here for a detailed explanation of how, why and when to perform your warm up.
Secondly, flexible muscles are extremely important in the prevention of lower leg injuries. When muscles and tendons are flexible and supple, they are able to move and perform without being over stretched. If however, your muscles and tendons are tight and stiff, it is quite easy for those muscles and tendons to be pushed beyond their natural range of movement. To keep your muscles and tendons flexible and supple, it is important to undertake a structured stretching routine.
Below is just one example of an effective calf stretch for shin splints treatment and prevention. But don’t rely on just one stretch; it’s important to do a range of stretching exercises for the Achilles, the upper and lower calf, and the hamstrings.
Standing Heel-Back Achilles Stretch (1:19) Stand upright and take one big step backwards. Bend your back leg and push your heel towards the ground. Make sure the toes of your back leg are facing forward. Letting your toes point to one side will cause this stretch to put uneven tension on the calf muscles. Over an extended period of time, this could lead to a muscle imbalance. Regulate the intensity of this stretch by lowering your body. Hold the stretch position for a minimum of 20 seconds and then repeat with the opposite leg.
And thirdly, strengthening and conditioning the muscles of the lower leg will also help to prevent shin splints. There are a number of specific strengthening exercises you can do for these muscles, including toe-up exercises; heel and toe walking; calf raises; and Thera-Band exercises. For a comprehensive, step-by-step treatment program, take a look at our 7 Step Shin Splints Treatment System.
How to Treat and Cure Your Shin Splints!
Firstly, be sure to remove the cause of the problem. Whether it is a biomechanical problem, or an overload problem, make sure steps are taken to remove the cause.
The basic treatment for shin splints is no different to most other soft tissue injuries. Immediately following the onset of any shin pain, the R.I.C.E.R. regimen should be applied. This involves Rest, Ice, Compression,Elevation, and Referral to an appropriate professional for an accurate diagnosis. It is critical that the R.I.C.E.R. regimen be implemented for at least the first 48 to 72 hours. Doing this will give you the best possible chance of a complete and full recovery.
The next phase of treatment (after the first 48 to 72 hours) involves a number of physiotherapy techniques. The application of heat and massage is one of the most effective treatments for speeding up the healing process of the muscles and tendons.
I have found both from personal experience and from working with many clients, that this form of treatment is the most effective. The application of heat and deep tissue massage on the affected area seems to bring the best results. If you suffer from shin splints, be sure to spend at least a few minutes massaging the affected area both before and after you exercise.
Once most of the pain has been reduced, it is time to move onto the rehabilitation phase of your shin splints treatment. The main aims of this phase are to regain and improve the strength, power, endurance and flexibility of the muscles and tendons that have been compromised.
The recommendations on this page are a good starting point, but if you’re suffering with shin splints at the moment, or they keep coming back after you thought you got rid of them, take a look at our 7 Step Shin Splints Treatment System.
The 7 Step System is a systematic, step-by-step, proven methodof reducing your pain, fixing your shin splints properly, and then making your shins and lower legs so strong and stable you’ll never worry about shin pain again.
Visit the information page to find out more, or watch the shin splints video presentation to see how to fix your shin splints once and for all and get back to pain free running quickly and safely.
About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.