Shin splints, also known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), is defined as “pain along the inner edge of the shinbone or tibia.” Shin splints are usually caused by repeated trauma to the connective muscle tissue surrounding the tibia. They are a common injury affecting athletes who engage in running sports or other forms of physical activity, including running and jumping. Shin splints injuries are specifically located in the middle to lower thirds of the anterior or lateral part of the tibia, which is the larger of two bones comprising the lower leg.
Shin splints are the most prevalent lower leg injury and affect a broad range of individuals. It affects mostly runners and accounts for approximately 13% to 17% of all running-related injuries. High school age runners see shin splints injury rates of approximately 13%. Aerobic dancers have also been known to have shin splints, with injury rates as high as 22%. Military personnel undergoing basic training experience shin splints injury rates between 4–8%.
Shin splint pain is described as a recurring dull ache along the inner part of the lower two-thirds of the tibia. In contrast, stress fracture pain is localized to the fracture site.
While the exact cause is unknown, shin splints can be attributed to the overloading of the lower leg due to biomechanical irregularities resulting in an increase in stress exerted on the tibia. A sudden increase in intensity or frequency in activity level fatigues muscles too quickly to properly help absorb shock, forcing the tibia to absorb most of that shock. This stress is associated with the onset of shin splints.
Typical treatments include rest, ice, strengthening and gradually returning to activity. Rest and ice work to allow the tibia to recover from sudden, high levels of stress and reduce inflammation and pain levels. It is important to significantly reduce any pain or swelling before returning to activity. Strengthening exercises should be performed after pain has subsided, on lower leg and hip muscles.
Less common forms of treatment for more severe cases of shin splints include extracorporeal shockwave therapy (ESWT) and surgery. Surgery is only performed in extreme cases where more conservative options have been tried for at least a year. However, surgery does not guarantee 100% recovery.
Coming soon – a directory of resources relating to the treatment of Shin Splints in South Africa