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Tips and Hints to Deal with Shin Splints

Preventing and Caring for this Common Injury
  -- By Jen Mueller, Certified Personal Trainer
The phrase "shin splint" is a generic term that describes pain in the lower leg, either on the medial (inside) or lateral (outside) side of the shin bone. This pain usually begins as a dull ache that can't be pinpointed; it can be felt along the entire region where the muscle attaches to the bone.

Early on, exercisers will usually feel pain only at the beginning and end of their workouts. But over time the discomfort becomes more severe, lasting throughout workouts and striking even when you're not exercising, like when getting out of bed.

Technically, shin pain can be caused by a number of conditions, such as tendonitis, periostitis (inflammation of the membrane covering the bone), or a stress fracture. Considering that the placement, causes, and treatment of these three injuries are often the same, the term "shin splint" became a simple way to label the injury.

Shin splints almost always occur in sports that involve running or jumping, such as jogging, dancing, gymnastics, and more. Even walkers can experience shin splints. Contrary to popular belief, they do not always represent a stress fracture of the shin bone (tibia), although stress fractures can be one of the reasons for lower leg pain.
What causes shin splints?
How can I ease the pain of shin splints?

A combination of these three approaches will usually help most people recover from shin splints and experience less pain:

1. Active Rest is the first mode of treatment for all types of shin splints. "Active rest" does not mean you must stop running or exercising. Many people make the mistake of not exercising for many weeks and then attempting the same distances that got them into trouble the first time. Rather, rest should be active to relieve stress on painful areas, yet maintain your conditioning. Completely stopping activities may give temporary relief, but injuries are likely to resurface with resumed activity, especially if you are trying to make up for lost time.

Active rest activities include low-impact exercises like the elliptical trainer, stationary cycling, and swimming. Try any activity that doesn't involve the same muscles as running, and that doesn't require repetitive impact on hard surfaces. “Water running” is another effective way to rehab these injuries: Use a flotation device and run in the deep end of a pool. You can move to the shallow end, running on the bottom, as your pain begins to improve.

Remember, the human body is truly remarkable in its ability to adapt, BUT it prefers to adapt to gradual changes over time. With slow, steady progress, your muscles, tendons and other soft tissues will better adapt to the stresses you are asking of it.

2. Ice can be very helpful during the acute phases of your pain. This is especially true if your shin splints are accompanied by redness, localized tenderness, or swelling. Try an ice massage by holding an ice cube in a washcloth and rubbing the swollen, sore area for 10 to 15 minutes. Another trick of the trade is to use a bag of frozen vegetables.

Remember not to exceed 10 to 15 minutes each time you ice, and always wrap ice cubes, frozen veggies, and store-bought gel ice in a towel or washcloth to avoid burns and frostbite. You can repeat icing every few hours as needed.

3. Stretching and strengthening the calf muscles can help prevent and treat shin splints. Here are some stretches that will target this area. (Hold each stretch for 10-15 seconds, repeating 2-3 times.) Remember, these are general guidelines for the self-treatment of shin splints. The underlying problem is that your body is unable to cope with the stress of exercise that you are placing on it. Be patient; it will take time—sometimes weeks or months—to resolve. Never attempt to train through the pain, and always stop when your body tells you to. If you are not improving with this home treatment, if you worsen significantly, or if the pain becomes a continuous discomfort (even at rest), revisit your health care provider.