The tibia, or long bone in the front of the leg, is called the shinbone. Your lower leg actually has two bones, the tibia and fibula. The tibia is the larger bone in the front and the fibula is smaller, more narrow and behind the tibia and infront of the calf muscle. Shin splints is a term used to describe pain that runs along the shinbone in the front of the lower leg.
The medical term for the condition is medial tibial stress syndrome. The cause of the condition can be multifactorial, or be the result of several different factors in your life. The major cause is repetitive stress on the shinbone and connective tissue. This stress can be the result of sudden change in physical activity which increases the frequency and stress on the lower leg.
Other factors that will increase the risk of developing these shin splints are flat feet or rigid arches which increases stress on the connective tissue on the shins and exercising in shoes that are improperly worn. Dancers, military recruits, runners and soccer players are at the highest risk.
Athletes who overpronate, don’t stretch or place excessive stress on their lower leg by running on cambered roads will also be at higher risk of developing the condition. Most often just one leg is involved and usually the athletes dominant leg.
You might feel pain from the lower tibia to the center of the leg, depending upon where the stress on the leg is placed. Exactly what causes the pain is still only a theory. It can be the result of small tears in the muscle, an inflammation of the tissue around the bone, an inflammation of the muscle or a combination of these factors.
Whatever the cause, all experts agree that you should stop your activity immediately, ice the area to reduce the inflammation and try to determine the reason you are experiencing the pain so you can start the right treatments.
If your shin splints are the result of a tight Achilles tendon it’s important to gently stretch the tendon so it creates much less stress on the shin. That area of the leg can also use some strengthening to reduce the risk that the injury will return.
While the leg is healing you can cross train in activities that don’t place stress on the lower leg. Activities like biking, swimming or running in the pool can help you maintain your cardiovascular fitness.
If your shin splints don’t heal in a reasonable amount of time, your doctor may take a bone scan or MRI looking for a stress fracture. This is a separation of the bone caused by repeated stress from the tendon. A stress fracture will require more time to heal and potentially a boot to immobilize the leg.
You can avoid this injury by not changing your exercise duration, intensity, frequency or location quickly. Replace your running shoes every 300 – 400 miles and run on softer surfaces. You might be evaluated by a podiatrist for biomechanical imbalances and consider an off-the-shelf shoe inserts to help prevent overpronation.
You should also include cross training as a matter of prevention and not just during rehabilitation for an injury.
MayoClinic: Shin Splints
SportsInjuryClinic: Shin Splints
Core Performance: Everything You need to know About shin splints
Runners World: Shin Splints
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: Shin Splints