How Can I Prevent Shin Splints?

Shin splints hurt more than you think they will. luckyraccoon/Shutterstock

I have to admit; I didn't know what a shin splint was until I wrote this column. And if I didn't know, there must be others out there who don’t know too, right?

OK then. Shin splints are a less technical term for tibial stress syndrome, when your shin muscles begin to ache or throb. You can feel the pain along the shinbone or behind it, depending on where the stress is coming from.

Shin splints often occur in runners who begin a new running program too quickly, or sometimes in athletes who play sports with sudden starts and stops — like basketball or tennis. They also often occur in people with "flat feet," who don’t have a good arch. Normally, the arch in the bottom of your foot prevents your shin muscles from being stretched too far every time you take a step. Now picture your foot without that arch and landing completely flat every time you take another step — ouch. Shin splints can also occur when you've got a hairline fracture in the shinbone itself.

For some people, their shins ache only when they are exercising or playing sports. For others, the exercise may relieve the pain, albeit only temporarily. Once you’ve got a shin split, the best thing you can do is rest. If you start to feel pain in your shins while you are exercising, stop what you're doing instead of irritating it further. You can also ice your shin for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Some doctors may recommend physical therapy to strengthen your shin muscles. If your pain hasn't sent you to the doctor quite yet, you can try some strength training exercises at the gym (or at home if you’ve got weights) like the video below.

So how do you prevent a shin splint from happening in the first place?

There are a few things you can do:

First off, if you're a walker or a runner, make sure you choose the right shoes. Too often, runners will wear shoes till they are completely worn out, at which point they are not providing the right support for your feet. The Mayo Clinic recommends changing your running shoes every 350 to 500 miles. If you walk or run three miles three times a week, that's about once a year.

Another thing you can do is strength training exercises for your shin muscles even before you start to feel pain. One exercise is called a toe raise — stand up on your toes for 10 seconds, and then slowly lower your feet to the floor. Do this 10 times in a row.

If you have flat feet, you can put arch supports in your shoes that will give you an artificial arch. This will help prevent your shin muscles from getting stretched too far when you walk.

Finally, you can try a low-impact exercise, like swimming, which can give you much the same health benefits as running without putting strain on your feet.

And remember, if you're starting a new exercise regimen, make sure to start slowly and gradually. If you haven't jogged in six months, don't try jogging five times in the first week. Besides, if you start gradually, you’ll be more likely to keep up your run — in the long run.