What can done to treat and then prevent shinsplints?
Shinsplints are painfully familiar to many of us who run, dance or play team sports, although the medical name of the condition probably isn’t. Formally known as medial tibial stress syndrome, it’s an overuse injury, generally thought to be caused by painful irritation of the tissue connecting the muscles of the lower leg to the shinbone. Some emerging science suggests that cellular changes within the shinbone itself, in reaction to the stress and pounding of many sports, also are involved, although to what extent isn’t clear.
For some people, switching athletic shoes and adding cushioned insoles reduces the risk of developing shinsplints, says Dr. Sabrina Strickland, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, who often sees patients with the injury. Increasing mileage slowly and training primarily on grass or other relatively soft surfaces also may help, she says.
But many people develop shinsplints no matter what.
The good news is that most also will recover within a few months, even with very conservative treatment, says Dr. Raphael S. Longobardi, the chairman of orthopedic surgery at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, N.J., and a former team physician for the soccer team then known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and other professional sports teams in New Jersey. “In my experience, the best treatment for shinsplints is to stretch the muscles of the lower leg,” he says.
A good start is to sit in a chair and straighten your sore leg; reach down to your toes and gently pull them back toward your body. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds or so and repeat five or six times. Then reverse the motion and gently push the toes down for 30 seconds or so and repeat five or six times. Finally, for a more intricate stretch, sit on the floor with your feet planted against a wall, heels on the ground, knees straight, and palms flat against the floor. Using your hands, walk your body toward the wall, “leaning into the wall,” Dr. Longobardi says, a motion that stretches the calf and shin muscles.
Meanwhile, if it hurts to run, “cut back on training,” he says. But the pain of shinsplints usually is mild, he says, and shouldn’t keep you from at least walking. If it does, he says, see a doctor to rule out a stress fracture or other serious injury.
And after you’ve recovered, ramp up your training again cautiously. The most common risk factor for shinsplints is, unfortunately, having had shinsplints before.