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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 splints’ is more of a non-medical umbrella term for when your shins hurt,” says Corey Block, a physical therapist at UW Health at The American Center. “It 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. Block says she sees shin-related problems 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,” Block says. “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 shouldn’t try to push through. It can have devastating results,” Block says.
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’s a plethora 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.
Failing to modify exercise regimens after signs of shin pain can lead to much more serious injuries. Block says many people who ignore symptoms end up with fractures, which take considerably more time to heal than irritation of the muscle or bone.
“A lot of people transition from it just being painful while they run to it being painful all the time,” she says. “That means you have waited too long to seek medical help .”
When to Seek Help for Shin Splints
It can be difficult to know exactly when to seek medical attention for shin pain but Block says people should monitor their pain over the course of a week or two to inform their decision.
“You don’t have to rush in on day one of shin pain, 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,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who you see first -- a physical therapist, a physician or an athletic trainer -- because it’s an overuse injury and we need to start modifying what you’re doing.”
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