"Shin splint" is often an overused and generic term that simply means "lower leg pain near your shin". Also referred to as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints can certainly take all the fun out of running. Leg pain can be on the outside of the shin bone (imagine flexing your foot to isolate that muscle that is sometimes strained or overworked during hill workouts). This is referred to as anterolateral shin splints. What I have is posteromedial shin splints, related to the muscles in the back (posterior) and inner (medial) parts of the shin. These muscles are responsible for lifting the heel just before the toes push off.
This is the second year I have had this problem, and as I struggle to find some once-and-for-all-relief, I've found that there are many contributing factors. First, tight muscles. It's always important to warm up and stretch before and after taking off on a long run (or really any exercise). This often gets overlooked when we're in a hurry to get to our post-run happy hour. Or even, say, when we use a run to the School for the Deaf track as our warm up. I can think of many times when I don't stretch because I think I feel just fine.
The second thing going on with shin pain relates to the muscle tendons and the periostium, the sheath that surrounds the bone. Many people can have tight muscles and really not experience much pain. I can run longer distances on soft surfaces, stretch, get a good sports massage, and be fine. Add a few pavement pounding runs about town, however, and suddenly there is a significant difference. With the jarring that occurs with feet hitting concrete or crowned asphalt, the periostium can become inflamed and irritated, and may even generate heat. In fact, last year my shin splint got so bad that you could feel the heat on the skin's surface. Ouch!
Again if left untreated and running continues, tension on the inflamed tendon can actually pull it from its attachment to bone, causing internal bleeding (I have had some discoloration in the area), and possibly even a bone fracture. Now this is something I do NOT want to experience.
Every resource, doctor, RMT, PT, etc. will say this about shin pain:
- Running is the #1 cause
- If you want it to heal, you must stop running
- Stretch and build strength in the affected muscles
- Get frequent massage to stretch the deeper muscle tissues and work out any adhesions
- Ice and elevate
Many people assume that running shoes contribute to the cause of shin splints, and it is true that running shoes should have enough support to asbsorb a lot of the shock that comes with running. However, changing shoes can only mask the larger cause of a shin splint (just like taking Ibuprofen, for example) and is not part of the treatment.
The good news in all of this is that swimming and cycling are recommended alternative activities to running during the healing process. And this makes me very happy.