Aaron Reinhardt is a licensed physical therapist with Spooner Estrella Physical Therapy, located on the Banner Estrella Medical Center campus.
Question: My son recently started practice for cross country track. He has been diagnosed with shin splints by the team’s athletic trainer. What are shin splints and what is the best treatment?
Answer: Shin splints are an injury that affects runners or other athletes in sports that require running. This is termed an “overuse” injury. An overuse injury occurs when an athlete trains too vigorously or uses improper training techniques. Poor mechanics of running are also present in many of these injuries.
The main treatment for any overuse injury is rest (stopping the activity completely), icing, stretching and then a slow return to activity. It is very important that the precipitating factor be addressed and changed for a positive return to activity. If the negative influence on the shin is not improved the athlete will most likely experience pain again.
The muscles that are involved are those that sit just anteriorly or posteriorly to the tibia or shin. These muscles are involved in controlling the foot through the running process. When the foot hits the ground the foot needs to absorb the forces of landing.
Many individuals have faulty foot mechanics and therefore the forces of landing are sent up the leg into areas that are not used to them. The anterior shin is the main area that becomes affected. The continued pounding that occurs with running causes these muscles to become inflamed and tender.
For those individuals with improper foot mechanics, proper footwear is essential. Make sure that the shoe fits the sport and that the shoe also fits the foot type. A trained physical therapist or podiatrist would be able to make suggestions on the proper shoe to purchase. Many times adding an insert or orthotic to the shoe is a very beneficial treatment in itself.
Shin splints are an injury that should calm down nicely with rest but deciding when and how to return to activity can be tricky. The advice of a trained physical therapist or athletic trainer is advised to pace the athlete back to full activity.
Starting with slow, progressive running in a pain-free manner is essential. Adequate rest between training sessions is important to allow enough rest to keep from over-stressing the musculature. Any increase in pain during return to activity is a sign that the program is too accelerated and should be scaled back.