If I asked you to pound your entire body weight onto your hands, repeatedly, for an hour a day, six days a week, you’d probably tell me to get lost. Yet, if you’re reading this, you probably do the exact same thing to your feet everyday when you work out, jog, or shoot hoops—and if you’re not careful about it, your feet will let you know they aren’t too happy about it, via your shins. Doctors and physical therapists call this message Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome. Everyday people, like myself, call it shin splints. Shin splints refer to pain in your tibia, or shinbone, and they are caused by overloading the bone and the connective tissue that attaches your muscles to the bone. There are a few reasons this happens.
The most likely cause is stressed muscles that become swollen and irritated from overuse. If this is the case, it’s a simple fix and we’ll discuss some solutions below.
A second cause might be that you have flat feet, meaning your arches collapse, again stressing muscles. It’s fairly obvious if you have flat feet (because, um, your feet are flat), and if this is the case, orthotics or arch supports can help. If you have access to custom orthotics from an orthopedist . . . great. If not, there are plenty of over-the-counter insoles and arch supports that might help (I highly suggest these by Dr. Scholl’s; they have been a lifesaver!). Just because one doesn’t work, don’t give up. It might take buying a few different kinds to find something comfortable for you.
A third and more serious cause of shin splints is stress fractures—small, hairline cracks in your lower leg bones. If this is the case, the pain tends to be sharper and more localized, with tenderness a few inches below the knee. If you suspect a stress fracture, talk to your doctor.
Regardless of the cause, the first step in shin splint management is a few days’ rest and some ice. While you’re resting, if your shins keep hurting, go see a doctor. If you start exercising again and the pain increases, go see a doctor. If your shin starts swelling, go see a doctor. But if none of these things happen, then home remedies will most likely solve the problem. So I’ve come up with a little something called the Four S’s of Saving Your Shins from Splints…
Each time your foot hits the ground, your musculoskeletal system absorbs a shockwave. The softer the surface, the smaller the shockwave. If you run, look for a good track that gives little resistance or consider running on grass or off-road. Whatever you do, stay off the pavement. If you work out at home, exercise on carpeted flooring or get yourself a small rug to stand on. Better still, a floor or plyometrics mat works perfectly.
A good pair of sneakers can also absorb that shockwave. Jogging shoes tend to be ideal for this. If you’re active, count on replacing footwear at least a couple of times a year. Your shoes may not look worn out after six months, but the internal support structure and shock absorbency have probably broken down.
Before you work out, warm up the muscles that support your shins. A great stretch for this is to push against a wall with your hands. As you do this, straighten one leg, bending your other leg at the knee, keeping both feet flat on the ground. You should feel a stretch in the calf of your straight leg. Repeat, switching legs. There’s also the tibialis anterior muscle stretch. Squat really low in front of a bar or something else you can grip. Lean back and pull yourself forward while keeping your feet flat. You’ll feel the stretch under your shin.
Strong shins can take more punishment. One super shin strengthener is toe raises, which train your tibialis anterior muscle. To do these, stand with your back against a wall and feet in front of you, about a foot from the wall, shoulder-width apart. Keeping your heels on the floor, raise your toes and lower them. Repeat 40 times.
Another strengthening exercise is calf raises. Stand on a stair or a stool so that your heels hang off the edge. Slowly rise up on your toes and the balls of your feet, and then slowly lower down again. Do three sets of ten. Once this gets easy, do it while holding weights. You can also do these with your toes pointed in and your toes pointed out.
The four S’s are not only the ideal way to manage most shin splints, they’re the ideal way to prevent them, too. So don’t wait for the shockwave to overtake you before you start doing them. Remember, your shins have been good to you for years, it’s about time you gave back.
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