Health & Fitness

Shin splints, a nagging injury that doesn't have to sideline exercise

Shin splints, a common injury, can take time, ice and smarts to heal
Shin splints? Cross-training can keep you active while you recover

Normally, Melissa Lane keeps her exercise regimen steady and moderate: a little CrossFit, a little jogging. Slow jogging.

Then, in February, Lane had a fun idea: She would add interval training on the weekends with her boys, ages 10 and 13. They'd walk a minute, then sprint a minute, doing 10 cycles of each up and down the sidewalk outside their Culver City home. To give each boy private time with her, Lane walked and ran with them separately, getting in 40 cycles each weekend.

The kids loved it. After a couple of weekends of this, Lane's shins did not.

She had developed shin splints, the bane of many an athlete who has taken up a new pursuit too enthusiastically, too quickly.

"It feels like an ache in your shins," said Lane, 43. "When you take any kind of springy step, you feel an ache that makes you want to [stop running and] walk again."

A minor case of shin splints can ache for days at a time; more serious injuries may take up to six months to heal. The key to managing shin splints, experts say, is care and moderation. In other words, ignore those twinges at your peril.

"I tell people, if you are feeling pain, stop what you are doing," said Fred Azar, a Memphis, Tenn., orthopedist and president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

When you get home, ice it and take an anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Afterward, don't cease all activity, Azar said, but decrease your intensity, and cross-train with other sports while you allow your injury to heal.

Cause and risks

The technical name is medial tibial stress syndrome, though doctors as well as patients call them shin splints, Azar said. The injury itself is caused by stress on the soft tissue surrounding the tibia bone, which is the large bone in the lower leg. The tissue, called the periosteum, gets inflamed, and that's what causes the ache.

Stress fractures, unlike shin splints, generally are limited to one leg at a time. If pain is intense in one shin, on one spot, it's worth a visit to the doctor, said Heather Gillespie, a sports medicine physician at UCLA.

As in Lane's case, the typical shin splint sufferer is someone who's recently changed up her running routine. "They often occur if you increase your training, start running on harder surfaces or if you change your shoes and that changes the way you are running," Gillespie said. Other risky activities include dancing (all that bouncing) or basic military training (the stress of introducing a sudden, intense workout regimen). Also, people with flat arches are more likely to experience shin splints because they lack strength in their feet.

Lane's boys did not suffer the same fate she did — active kids who run around all day, every day, their shins felt fine after the weekend sprints. But Lane was lucky too; after about a month she returned to interval training with her boys — only now she leaves the sprinting to her younger competitors.

health@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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