Staying in the Game: Watch out for shin splints before leaping into exercise

This is an article that Dr Lynch wrote for his column “Staying in the Game”, for the Portland Press Herald. We hope you find it informative. If you are suffering from a shin splints or other issues, you can contact Dr Lynch from the info on this contact page.

Spring is in the air and the snow is off the roads and ball fields. Now that the weather is warmer, people want to go outside to get some fresh air and exercise after another Maine winter.

One exercise many will be doing is running – whether you are one of the fortunate 4,600 people that were lucky enough to register for the Beach to Beacon in August or you are heading onto the sports fields. Most athletic endeavors require running to get in shape or to participate. This holds true for the weekend warrior going out for a jog to improve their health, or to maintain or lose weight.

Shin splints are very common injuries in athletes. Nearly 20 percent of all runners will suffer from them at some time.

Pain and mild swelling from shin splints occurs along the shinbone, the long bone in the lower leg also known as the tibia.

In mild cases the pain will subside when you stop running and rest. In more severe cases the pain and swelling will be more pronounced and the pain will not subside on rest alone.

The most common cause of shin splints is training too much too soon. They can be caused by weak dorsal flexor muscles of the shin (these are the muscles that pull your foot toward your torso), tight calf muscles, improper footwear, or poor gait and foot mechanics.

To diagnosis shin splints requires a detailed history and physical examination, including muscle testing and biomechanical analysis of the lower legs and hips. There are no specific tests to be performed unless the patient is in severe pain, with obvious swelling and altered gait. In those cases, imaging studies would be appropriate to rule out stress factures in the tibia.

Treatment of shin splints may include ice to the swollen areas of the shin, elevation, over-the-counter anti-inflammation medication, new shoes and possibly arch supports.

A young woman came to see me last year with pain in her shins after she started to train for the Beach to Beacon. This was to be her first road race and she planned to run it with her husband, who was a distance runner on his college team. Even though she had never been a runner, she was in excellent cardio condition from cycling and teaching belly dancing.

I had her use ice for the pain and swelling. She was referred to a store that specialized in runners for new footwear. The muscles of her shins were weak and she was given specific exercises to do with the intent to stretch and strengthen them, along with deep tissue therapy.

Once the pain subsided, I watched her run at the local track, and made some adjustment in her technique and had her build a gradual base. The good news was she recovered successfully and was able to run the Beach to Beacon with her husband without pain.

Jeanne Hackett, a certified running coach from Portland, recommends a training program that is progressive and includes rest. Having someone of her credentials to evaluate your running technique and develop a training program specifically for your goals and physical conditioning can be helpful.

Remember, always warm up and do a proper cool-down after you exercise. It is recommended before starting an exercise program you should see your health care provider for approval.