Most of us would like to create an impact in this world, no matter how small. To achieve this, some are adamant and hard-wired to finish what they’ve started, no matter the odds.
Such was the case of elite Kenyan runner Hyvon Ngetich, who collapsed as she was nearing the last stop of the 2015 Austin Marathon and literally crawled her way to the finish line, landing a respectable 3rd place. Her indomitable will to finish what she started is incredibly inspiring.
We can showcase this kind of determination when we finish that grueling run or that tough workout, but doing so through intense pain is not always the best idea. This is especially true when it comes to shin splints, and doctors warn against running through this pain or trying to “exercise it out.”
Ignoring a problem does not make it disappear. In most cases, it makes it worse, and this is especially true with shin splints.
It can be a bit confusing to fix the symptoms for this lower leg condition that’s all too familiar to athletes, dancers and neophyte runners. We’re here to help!
Here’s a definitive guide to shin splints and some useful remedies, such as the use of ice packs, that will help you finish your race.
What are shin splints?
Shin splints are an inflammation of the muscles, tendons and bone tissue around the tibia or shinbone—the larger frontal bone that connects the knee to the ankles.
Medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), it is classified as an overuse injury that develops after repetitive movements causing trauma on the shinbone.
Why do shin splints happen?
Military personnel, athletes, runners and dancers are all at risk of having episodes of lower leg pain because of the repeated stresses on their lower leg. Non-athletes are also at risk, for instance, those with:
1. Flat or high-arched feet – This condition places more pressure on the arch and can cause some rotation into the lower leg, including the tibia.
Even while walking or standing up, an overly arched foot (under pronation) or, inversely, a flat foot (overpronation) affect the alignment of the body.
2. Worn-out shoes – Worn-out shoes do little to nothing to absorb the impact or support your arch, resulting in a higher force exerted to your joints, shins, knees and hips.
According to experts, good-quality running shoes need to be replaced after an average use of 400 miles.
3. Weak ankles, hips or core muscles – As your foot lands on the ground, the rest of your body absorbs some impact, which may be greater than the force your musculoskeletal structures are prepared to support.
Apart from biomechanical factors, these external factors cause additional stress on your shins:
4. Not stretching – Stretching allows the muscles to prepare for the incoming stress load and is especially helpful for someone starting a new sport or training regimen.
5. Running on hard or uneven surfaces (i.e., uphill or downhill) – Activities that make your legs and feet re-adjust frequently can increase the likelihood of shin splints.
6. Drastic change in exercise routine – Your body, shins included, may not be able to absorb the impact or stresses of a new exercise routine or a more intense training.
7. Poor running form – You may want to avoid your feet from hitting the ground too forcefully at the heel. Why? Because it stretches the shin muscles too much and forces it to work harder to slow down.
Conversely, strictly running on your toes stresses the calf muscles too much, as well. Experts suggest landing flat and on your mid foot to avoid shin splints and other possible injuries.
8. Tight calf muscles – Having tight calf muscles means the muscles in front of it will have to work harder to compensate. If happening frequently, this excessive stress may either be a contributing or causative factor for shin splints.
What does shin splints feel like?
Shin splints can be a throbbing, dull or sharp pain along the tibia. The discomfort usually starts as you begin your workout and worsens at a later stage, even until you’ve finished. Obvious signs of inflammation, such as a slight swelling and redness on the skin that is painful to touch, may occur.
Why use cold therapy to treat shin splints
As early as 2,500 B.C, Egyptians used cold therapy to treat injuries and inflammation. Thousands of years later, people from around the world still use cold therapy to treat various conditions.
When applied to a fresh injury, a cold pack constricts the blood vessels and keeps fluids away from the injury site to control the swelling. It also acts as an analgesic—its numbing effect a result of being able to slow down the nerves from sending pain messages to the brain.
That being said, persons with sensory and blood circulation issues are discouraged from using cold therapy because they are more susceptible to ice burns but may not even know (or feel) it.
Some useful cold therapy tools
There are several tools you can use to apply cold therapy on your shins. Pain and inflammation management is easy at home and on the go, as long as you have these:
These gel-filled reusable packs are your first choice in treating minor injuries. Choose gel packs that remain flexible even when frozen and are shaped to conform to your shins. Appropriately shaped shin splint ice packs offer the best option as they fit your shins perfectly and offer proper cold compression to help you heal faster. With proper use, you can expect results in as short as three days to one week.
To use – Pop the gel pack in the freezer and remove it when ready to use. Place it on your shins for 15 to 20 minutes.
Advantages – Reusable, contours to the body part and easy to use and store, gel packs can be used cold or warm to address various therapy needs. Some gel packs that come with straps or bands allow you to move hands-free while waiting to heal.
Disadvantages – Gel packs may not cool as effectively as other methods, but this can be an advantage, too, as you are less likely to have ice burns — with proper use, of course.
Tip: Ice should not be directly placed on the skin to avoid ice burns. Adding a layer of thin cloth in between your skin and the pack helps you avoid the possibility of damaging your skin and tissues.
Home-made or DIY ice packs
These inexpensive cold therapy tools almost cost nothing, but come with few disadvantages compared to gel packs.
1. Ice cubes or crushed ice
To use – Place crushed (or cubed) ice in a plastic bag.
Advantages – This is an inexpensive and convenient method.
Disadvantages – DIY packs do not leave cold for long and leave a mess of water. Ice cubes are hard to mold around your body and may be difficult if your injuries are on your joints. Plus, you need to hold the bag of ice down with your hands, so you can’t do anything else while icing.
2. Ice puck
To use – Pour water in the paper cup and freeze it. When ready to use, peel the top of the cup to expose the ice. Cover the other side with cloth and massage in circular motion on the injured area.
Advantages – This method is inexpensive and convenient. There’s little to no risk of skin damage because of continued motion (ice massage).
Disadvantages: It creates a watery mess and does not contour to body parts.
3. Ice immersion or ice bath
To use – Fill a container or bucket with chilly water and ice and immerse your lower leg in it. Limit your ice bath for 15 minutes to avoid ice burns.
Advantages – Ice baths allow for the delivery of cold therapy with great coverage. This modality works best for injuries that affect a vast part of your body.
Disadvantages – This may not be for everyone as it could get uncomfortably cold. Ice baths may cause hypothermia and may aggravate stiff muscles.
4. Chemical cold packs
To use – Shake, squeeze or bend the contents of the packages and apply to the injury site.
Advantages – Chemical or instant ice packs do not require refrigeration and are great for emergency situations in remote areas.
Disadvantages – These instant packs are expensive and do not cool as effectively as the other methods. They can only be used once and may lead to skin burn if the pack leaks.
5. Ice Therapy Machine
Ice therapy machines are serious in delivering constant cold to the shin and other parts of the body.
To use – Attach the pads on the affected body part and secure them with a strap. When the machine is turned on, icy water is pushed from the reservoir to the tubings, then to the pad, to relieve inflammation and pain.
Advantages – This is best for home use and perfect for those who have had recent surgery.
Disadvantages – Ice machines are not widely available and are quite pricey for short-term use. As the tubings are attached on the injury site, you cannot move while using it.
You may need someone to help you with operating the machine. If it gets busted, replacement parts may be difficult to find and you may have to buy a new unit.
6. Cold roller
Combining cold therapy and massage makes cold rollers effective in relieving shin splint pain. It reduces discomfort by relaxing the muscles and working through the soft tissues.
To use – Place the cold roller in the freezer. When ready to use, press the cold roller on your calf muscles, avoiding the shin bone, and roll it up and down the medial (central) and lateral (side) portions of your calf, focusing on the problem areas. Do this for at least one minute for each leg.
Advantages – Cold rollers are handy and can be used anywhere.
Disadvantages – Cold rollers are used to loosen tight muscles and are not considered a primary icing tool. It does not help reduce inflammation.
Other methods to help fix shin splints
- Take some rest – As an overuse injury, shin splints happen because of constant lower leg stresses. Putting pressure on your shins will cause further injuries that delay the healing process. Hence, avoid all activities that put stress on the affected area.
- Use compression – When used with cold therapy tools, compression further reduces swelling by keeping the fluids away from the injury site. Cold compression also encourages the flow of fresh blood to the affected area, encouraging faster healing.
Most ice packs come with elastic bandages to hold the pack down and to deliver cold compression. If the pack does not come with elastic bandages, you can purchase bandages separately at any pharmacy.
- Elastic bandage – If applying a bandage on your shins, start with the area furthest from the heart, working your way up. You’ll know you have done it correctly if the injury site sits in the middle of the bandaged portion.
Do not wrap too tightly or you might cut off blood flow towards your shins. If your skin turns bluish, and if you feel a numbing and tingling sensation, your bandage is too tight. Just adjust the wrap and see whether you can insert a finger under the bandage to test if it’s snug enough.
- Compression sleeves and socks – Wearing these help reduce muscle fatigue and promote proper blood flow for increased performance.
- Basic stretching – Two to three days following your shin splint bout, you may perform stretches and light exercises for faster recovery and to strengthen your muscles. Toe curls, calf raises and stretches are among the few exercises recommended at this stage. The key to avoiding shin splints is not doing too much, too soon.
- Wear proper shoes – Unfortunately, there are no shoes made especially to prevent or fix shin splints.
What you want to look for are cushioned shoes that offer extra support. Shoes with cushion help absorb the impact from your feet hitting the ground, while supportive shoes work to assist your foot strike and running stride.
If you are flat-footed, buy a pair that allows you to rebalance your body and spread out the force equally through your legs to help you avoid lower leg pain and injuries.
- Use shoe inserts – Insoles that offer arch support work only if they fit you perfectly. Inserts with deep heel cups are effective in absorbing shock and providing stability and balance on your legs and foot.
Firm, flexible orthotics are the best choice for runners, dancers and athletes who often move along hard surfaces.
- Take vitamin D and calcium – Taking these nutritional supplements may prevent shin splints from worsening, according to a study. Vitamin D regulates calcium and phosphate in the body, and it is a key nutrient in healthier bones, muscles and teeth. Calcium is essential for bone health and is responsible for making it strong and dense.
How long does it take for shin splints to heal?
The healing period varies from one person to another, but it generally takes from four weeks to six months. Factors such as age, the extent of injury or the time it took before you started the treatment process are all factors to consider.
Experts, however, say your return to normal activities will be determined by your body and not by the number of days or weeks since your injury.
Restored leg strength, range of motion and absence of pain for various movements on both legs are among the confirmatory signs of your shin splint recovery.
Once you’re ready to restart your routine, do it slowly. Avoid re-injuring yourself by performing only half of your previous activity load. For example, if you’re a runner, mix running with walking on a 75 percent and 25 percent ratio, respectively.
Shin splints are quite common but easy to overcome and treatable even without surgery. With simple cold therapy tools, appropriate shoes, patience and discipline, your lower leg pains will become a thing of the past.
However, if these methods do not offer relief or if your symptoms get worse, seek a doctor’s appointment and have yourself checked for other serious conditions.
Are you suffering from shin splints? Do you find these methods useful? Share your thoughts with us here.