Shin Splints: What They Are and How To Treat Them

If you exercise regularly, then it’s likely that you’ve experienced shin splints before.

Characterized by a dull ache in the front part of your lower leg, the severity of the shin splints can range from “mildly annoying when walking up stairs” to “need to use my desk chair to wheel myself to the living room.”

Generally, shin splints are caused by overuse of the connective muscle tissue surrounding one of the bones in your lower leg, the tibia.

This happens quite a bit with athletes who participate in high-impact aerobic exercise such as dancing, jogging, or jumping.

While a shin splint can be described as just a vague sense of “something not being right” in the lower leg, without proper care they can linger annoyingly for up to several weeks in extreme cases.

Seemingly popping up out of nowhere, shin splints are fairly common and nothing too serious to worry about as long as the athlete gets plenty of rest.

According to some studies, shin splints make up around 15% of all running-related injuries.

The military in particular – likely due to their heavy emphasis on running as a form of exercise and discipline – report around a 7% rate of shin splints during basic training.

What are the symptoms of shin splints?

Shin Splint Symptom Diagram

As mentioned in the previous section, shin splints are not a career-ending injury by any stretch of the imagination.

With proper rest, they disappear in a few days.

That said, the dull ache associated on the front part of the lower leg can impact the athlete’s ability to train their legs.

Not to be confused with a stress fracture, shin splints normally affect both legs at the same time. Also, shin splints tend to affect a larger general area of the athlete’s leg, whereas stress fractures are felt more acutely in a specific area.

To get technical for a moment, shin splints are caused from the athlete’s tendency to “over-pronate” during their stride.

As you probably know, the body is a linked chain of impossibly complex kinetic movements. The movement of each part of your body affects other parts beyond its immediate surroundings.

To oversimplify, an injury to an athlete’s toe may affect their gait, which in turn affects their hip, which may affect their posture and lead to neck and shoulder pain. This shoulder pain may lead to a reduction in mobility or muscle mass.

All from a simple toe injury.

Bringing it back to shin splints, this is when the athlete turns their medial arch down and towards the midline of the body. The purpose of this, while possibly entirely unconscious in nature, is to create a “softer landing” with the ground.

This is why shin splints are most common among runners.

After potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of micro-impacts, natural wear and tear begins to take its toll on the athlete’s lower leg. The natural tendency is to over-pronate the foot in an attempt to soften the impact of each step.

How to treat shin splints so they go away quickly

Like most other injuries that come from repeated light impact, the treatment for shin splints is fairly basic: plenty of rest, icing as necessary, and an eventual return to the same level of intensity during workouts.

When it comes to treating shin splints, accounting for inflammation is also something that should be considered, especially before getting back in the gym or on the track.

Individuals who respond well to OTC painkillers may consider taking them to reduce localized inflammation, though it’s important to be careful not to underestimate the value of a few days of rest to repairing an injury sufficiently.

That said, endurance athletes that focus almost exclusively on aerobic exercise (looking at you, fellow marathon runners) would do well to do some leg-strengthening exercises once fully healed.

Special attention should be paid to the quads, glutes and calves. While sport-specific training is important, endurance athletes are notorious for overdoing it and neglecting strength training for fear of putting on significant amounts of mass.

While this is a legitimate concern (especially at elite levels), mass or no mass, you will find it hard to train with crippling shin splints.

Consider experimenting with light resistance training, possibly even cross-training, one or two days a week as a way to improve overall athletic performance.

Are shin splints caused by vitamin D deficiency?

In 2018, an interesting study was published by the Asia Pacific League of Associations for Rheumatology that linked vitamin D deficiency to shin splints.

More specifically, they linked vitamin D deficiency to tibial bone pain and tenderness. For the purposes of this article, we will assume this is synonymous with shin splints as that is an adequate description of the symptoms.

The study examined 118 patients, analyzing their levels of a substance called 25-OHD. This is a biomarker for how much Vitamin D is in a person’s blood at any given time.

What the found was interesting: there was an inverse correlation between serum 25-OHD and tibial bone pain.

In other words, the more 25-OHD (or vitamin D) was found in the patient’s blood, the less tibial bone pain they had.

Or to put it in layman’s terms, patients with shin splints had lower levels of vitamin D in their blood.

This study notwithstanding, it’s important to remember when analyzing studies like this that correlation does not equal causation. While more research is required on the topic, it’s unlikely that low levels of vitamin D directly CAUSED the shin splints.

In other words, if you are over-pronating your food like it’s your job, taking some extra vitamin D supplements isn’t likely to completely prevent your shin splints.

What’s more likely to be happening is that the over-pronation is causing the body to apply its reserves of 25-OHD to reducing the inflammation associated with shin splints. Once the levels are sufficiently depleted, the inflammation takes over and the athlete begins to feel what we refer to as shin splints.

How to prevent shin splints

At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the athlete to make sure that they are exercising properly from a biomechanical standpoint.

Sweating and “working hard” are important to be sure, but this is why the fitness world puts such a heavy emphasis on training with proper form.

Genetically gifted specimens and individuals with proper nutrition have a little more leeway when it comes to this, but that’s no excuse for improper training.

Furthermore, it could be argued that shin splints SPECIFICALLY are an injury that results from overtraining. In the simplest sense, the athlete is trying to protect themselves from pain because they are training too hard and not resting enough.

So the lesson for the day?

Rest more, run properly, and make sure you fill yourself on healthy and nutritious foods so your body can recover in between workouts.

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Written on May 28th, 2019