If you're not familiar (and therefore extremely, extremely lucky), shin splints are a very common problem in your lower leg, and it all stems from inflammation. "Shin splints is a layperson term for inflammation of the fascia and covering of the tibialis anterior muscle," says Lara Heimann, physical therapist and yoga guru. "It covers the front part of the shin, but goes more to the right from the midline over. If you lift your toes up in dorsiflexion, you'll see this muscle kind of bulge there—that's the tibialis anterior. So it's more on that lateral side of the shin."
I've never realized this before, but that area of your shin is actually quite thin, in terms of muscle to bone... which is precisely why inflammation in the area hurts like hell. "In that area, you can see that it doesn't have a lot of space for inflammation to go," says Heimann. "It's a compartment—so all of that irritation and swelling is kind of stuck in that anterior compartment."
The inflammation for shin splints typically stems from running or high impact walking. Your shin area is responsible for literally lifting your toes up to clear the ground, so when this is done repetitively—and on a hard surface—you can be prone to problems. "What happens is when that lifting and lowering onto the ground is done repetitively, where you're lifting your toes over and over, it's a repetitive stress or strain," she explains. "And the first sign is that you get sore there. Then the second sign is that it's painful to run, because every time you land, that area feels very inflamed."
So shin splints are essentially an overuse syndrome, says Heimann, and they're common in runners. "Or it could be from you starting and changing too many variables too quickly—like you've never run before, and launch right into it hardcore," she says. "The muscles haven't adapted to the demand, and that's a really typical way of getting it." Another cause? The surface you're moving on. "Concrete is a good example—it has zero return of energy if you run on it," she says. "The weight of your body is going down into the surface of concrete, and it's literally dead energy. You're more likely to get an inflammatory response when the surface is dead." This is as opposed to asphalt or grass, for example. Or you can just be working out without having enough strength to support the moves you're doing. "Maybe you haven't developed the muscles of those lower legs well enough," says Heimann.
Now, in terms of treatment—the first step is to let the inflammation calm the F down. "Do things like gentle massages in that area which moves the inflammation around," says Heimann. "Do some gentle ankle movements, which you can do while sitting on the couch. Just pump your ankle up and down. If it's in an acute stage, you can put ice on it—in physical therapy, we do what's called an ice massage which is better than just sticking a bag of ice on it." Then, before you hit the pavement again, return to your workout slowly—but only after you've properly warmed up.
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