What to Do About "Shin Splints"

“Pain insists upon being attended to.” - C.S. Lewis

            “Shin splints” are a common complaint among all different kinds of dancers that can lead to other complications like fractures, if not properly treated.

            The real name for “shin splints” is tibial stress syndrome and occurs when the muscles of the lower leg become swollen and irritated and stress and irritate the periosteum of the tibia.  The periosteum is a sheath that encases bone and has many nerve endings.  As the muscles pull on the periosteum, microscopic tearing occurs, and the nerve endings signal the brain that something is wrong, and we feel pain.

            Those experiencing tibial stress syndrome, will complain of a dull aching pain in the lower leg along the side of the tibia, or shin bone.  This condition most commonly occurs in the tibialis anterior muscle but can also occur in the tibialis posterior, the flexor digitorum longus or the peroneal muscles. (Fitt, 1988).  It is a chronic condition, meaning that it develops slowly over a period of time and then lingers.  Unlike an acute injury, like a fracture of sprain that occurs in an instant and then heals, this condition dissipates slowly and can recur over and over again.

            Tibial stress syndrome is classified as an overuse injury that can be caused by a sudden increase in training or bouts of excessive jumping, but can also be caused by other factors like dancing on a hard surface such as concrete, improper foot alignment which can lead to feet rolling inward when landing from jumps, improper weight distribution in the feet, or muscular imbalances in the lower leg.

            The treatment for tibial stress syndrome involves rest and a break from all jumping.  Ice will help decrease the inflammation of the muscles and the periosteum and will alleviate the pain as will taking an anti-inflammatory.  Gentle stretching can also help.  The muscles along the front of the shin can be stretched by pushing forward on the arches while either standing or kneeling, and the calf muscles can be stretched in exercises described in last week’s post about tight calf muscles.

            Although rest, ice, anti-inflammatories and stretching will alleviate the symptoms, it is important that the dancer determine the cause of tibial stress syndrome to prevent it from constantly recurring.  A physical therapist who is well versed in dance medicine will be able to do a screening to determine if the condition is being caused by muscular imbalances and/or misalignments that can be corrected through strengthening and stretching exercises.

            It is important that dancers do not ignore the pain and continue to dance, in spite of having “shin splints”, because of the additional damage that can be done.  Paying attention to the body’s signals and seeking treatment immediately will shorten the recovery period and keep the dancer healthy.

Fitt, S. (1988) Dance Kinesiology.  New York, NY: Schirmer Books.