What Are Shin Splints?
Shin splints are common among young (and older) athletes—and they hurt. Shin splints typically present as pain associated with inflammation of the tissue along the inner edge of the tibia (the shinbone). The tissue involved may be muscles, tendons, and the bone tissue around the tibia. The pain is usually felt where the muscles attach to the bone. If your child participates in sports, there’s a good chance you’ll have experience with shin splints.
What Are The Causes Of Shin Splints?
Shin splints causes are directly related to physical activity, usually vigorous and/or repetitive sports activity, in which muscles and bones in the lower leg pull and become irritated.
Common shin splints causes are sudden changes in your child’s physical activity, such as greater frequency, duration, or intensity of exercise since the condition is an injury due to overuse. Improper training, hard training after time off from the sport, and inadequate physical conditioning also cause shin splints.
Other causes of shin splints are related to the foot: having flat feet (which can stress the muscles of the lower leg during exercise), abnormally rigid or very high arches, or wearing unsupportive or worn-out footwear.
What Are The Symptoms Of Shin Splints?
The most common shin splints symptoms are pain and swelling in the lower leg; the pain will be along the inner part or front of the shin bone. Your child may complain of mild or severe pain, or say the shin bone feels sore when touched. He or she may not notice the symptoms of shin splints at first because the discomfort may come and go. However, symptoms are likely to progress to steady, persistent pain after activity.
Who Is Most At Risk For Shin Splints?
At TPOC, we generally see shin splints more often in student-athletes (although anyone can get them). Children who play high-impact sports (which stresses the legs) and those with poor arch structure are most at risk for shin splints, as is any child who does not warm up enough before play or training. Shin splints are especially common in children and teens who participate in:
Runners have the highest risk for shin splints, especially those who are running on uneven surfaces (such as hills or poorly maintained streets for training) or ramp up their training program suddenly.
Tight muscles, poor running mechanics or a pronated gait, and insufficient warmups are also causes of shin splints in children who participate in track.
If your child does track at school, make sure their track shoes are in good condition and are the proper footwear for their event (cross country, sprints, hurdles, long jump, etc.).
As with kids who participate in track, soccer players who train or play on uneven surfaces (such as poorly maintained fields or practicing by running on the beach) are at risk for shin splits. Another issue, as with any sport, is making sure your child is wearing proper footwear for the sport—soccer cleats in this case.
The frequent cutting and side-to-side motions, as well as all the running and jumps on the court, can lead to shin splints in kids who play basketball. Be sure to choose sneakers that offer the right fit and support.
Even veteran dancers will tell you that dance is hard on the body. As in track, children who dance often get shin splints due to improper conditioning, tight muscles, hard landings from jumps, or overtraining. Wearing dance shoes that lack proper arch support and dancing on surfaces that do not offer shock absorption are also contributing factors to shin splints in dance.
Diagnosis of Shin Splints
A pediatric orthopedist will conduct a full medical history, examine your child’s lower leg, and discuss the symptoms in order to provide a shin splints diagnosis. The children’s orthopedist will also look for other problems that could affect healing, such as a stress fracture or tendinitis. For an accurate shin splints diagnosis, the pediatric orthopedist may order imaging tests to rule out other issues. A children’s orthopedist knows that stress fractures and damage to a child’s growth plates are not seen on an X-ray and therefore, may do an MRI to get more detailed images of the injury.
Treatment For Shin Splints
Shin splints treatment depends on the severity of the injury; the best shin splints treatment for mild cases is to reduce or avoid the activities that are causing the pain. As with the many sports injuries we treat at TPOC, we will recommend RICE (rest, ice, and compression to reduce swelling and pain, and elevation). We might prescribe anti-inflammatory medications, as well.
Treatment for shin splints also includes physical therapy with shin splints stretches that work out the calf muscles and stretch and strengthen the foot and leg muscles and tendons. Your child may even say that their shins feel better from these flexibility exercises. If your child wants to exercise beyond shin splints stretches, we recommend low-impact activities such as swimming, using an elliptical trainer, or riding a stationary bike.
If your child’s shin splints case is more severe, the pediatric orthopedist may recommend a walking boot, cast, or crutches to protect the leg, relax the stress on it, and force your child to rest. However, most kids return to their regular activities after a few weeks or months of rest and time to heal.
Prevention Of Shin Splints
Shin splints prevention comes down to effective warm-ups and stretching before exercise, scheduling at least one day of rest per week to give the body time to recover, and replacing shoes that are ill-fitting or worn out. Look for athletic shoes that offer strong arch support and proper cushioning, and that are designed for your child’s sport.
Shin splints exercises that will help prevent shin splints are calf, hamstring, and shin muscle stretches; ask your pediatric orthopedist for a list of shin splints exercises appropriate for your child. Cross-training with different kinds of exercises on different days also helps prevent shin splints by distributing the stresses on your child’s foot and ankle better.
Another tool for shin splints prevention is to have your child wear orthotics to align and stabilize the foot and ankle. This takes the stress off the lower leg and is an excellent solution for kids with flat feet or who have recurrent issues with shin splints.
We know getting back into action will be top of mind for your child but give them at least two weeks of no pain before returning to sports—and prevent the need for more shin splints treatment by keeping that return at a low intensity at first, with a gradual increase in intensity, frequency, and duration. Using cold packs and resting for a day or two while training will also help prevent shin splints from coming back.
See our pediatric orthopedists for shin splints and other sports injuries
If your child complains of pain in the lower leg, especially along the shin bone, our pediatric orthopedists will check for shin splints, stress fractures, and other conditions that can cause pain and swelling. Make an appointment with a TPOC pediatric orthopedist in one of our four northern NJ offices in Cedar Knolls, Jersey City, Springfield, and Wayne.