It happens every year to thousands of high school athletes: After a winter of relative hibernation, they go out for track and quickly ramp up activity, only to find themselves experiencing shin splints.
But what not everyone realizes is that shin splints can be more than just temporary pain from running or jumping — they can be caused by something far more serious.
Shin splint’ is more of a non-medical umbrella term for when your shins hurt and can mean many different things — anywhere from a problem with a muscle or tendon that runs along the shin, to an inflammatory reaction of the bone lining, to a stress reaction that can progress to a stress fracture.
Shin splints can happen to anyone but are most common in adolescents because they are still growing and developing their bone density. Shin-related problems occur most frequently in high school athletes who take part in sports heavy in running or jumping, such as track, cross country, soccer or volleyball.
It’s also usually people who have a change in their training load — a sharp increase in the amount of time, the intensity or the type of training they’re doing. That big change is what causes pain because bone cells are being broken down faster than they can be built.
Preventing shin splints
Shin pain is often preventable by gradually increasing training time or intensity, but taking proper precautions doesn’t always prevent injuries. Shin splints are categorized as overuse injuries, so it’s important to start modifying activities soon after symptoms show up. People should not try to "push" through the pain.
Seeing a movement specialist, such as a physical therapist or an athletic trainer, can be helpful to people who still experience pain. As trained medical professionals, physical therapists and athletic trainers are able to look for abnormal movements and diagnose their root cause.
Whether it’s a restriction of motion in a joint or a weakness of hip or core muscles, there are a number of things that can cause more load to be placed on a certain leg. Once the cause is identified, specialists can provide exercises specifically aimed at correcting causes of abnormal movements.
If exercise routines aren't changed after shin pain starts, it can lead to much more serious injuries. Many people who ignore symptoms end up with fractures, which take more time to heal.
When to seek help for shin splints
It can be difficult to know exactly when to seek medical attention for shin pain. It may not be necessary to see someone immediately if pain occurs, but if it continues to progress over a week or two, or it's getting worse, or it’s not improving with rest, then you should come be seen. If the pain starts to occur all of the time, that can be a sign of having waited too long.
Article first published November 2019.