Shin splints are somewhat of a generic term for pain in the tibia, or shin bone. Typically runners are most commonly affected, but it can occur in any repetitive impact sport. Other causes of leg pain are covered in the posts on chronic exertional compartment syndrome and stress fractures, so in discussing shin splints, we will focus specifically on medial tibial stress syndrome.
Signs and symptoms of shin splints
Athletes with this condition typically complain of leg pain along the medial side of the tibia. Usually the pain is more diffuse than the pain with a stress fracture, which is often painful in a smaller, more localized area (although not always true). Runners notice increasing pain with running as they increase their distances or duration with training. Occasionally the pain starts to affect daily activities.
Diagnosis of shin splints
Sports medicine physicians will examine the runner or painful athlete and usually find tenderness along the tibia over many centimeters. Signs of other problems such as calf tightness are most always absent. X-rays are usually normally, but physicians will order them to rule out stress fractures. Depending on the severity and duration of the symptoms, more advanced tests such as bone scans or MRI’s are ordered.
Treatment for shin splints
Treatment for medial tibial stress syndrome is usually nonsurgical. Rest from running, or even just modifying activity and switching to less impact exercise such as swimming, biking, or using an elliptical trainer, is often necessary. Ice and anti-inflammatory medications, often provide pain relief. Physical therapy for stretching exercises and modalities can be helpful. The key is prevention. Runners need to increase their training slowly. When increasing distance for an upcoming race or event, they need to increase no more than 10% per week to give their tibias time to recover from the increased stress.
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