I run four or five times a week (usually for about 40 minutes). A month ago I developed pains in my right shin during a long run, which lasted for a few days. Since then, the pain returns whenever I try to run. Could I have shin splints? If so, how long will it take to heal and how will I maintain my fitness levels in the meantime?
All regular runners dread the prospect of “shin splints”, an over-use injury where the front of the lower leg becomes inflamed and painful. Technically known as “medial tibial stress syndrome” or MTSS, it is the most common of a group of lower-leg problems that can affect runners, race-walkers, footballers and other sporty types who run and jump.
Several injuries have similar symptoms, though, and what you have described is a good example of when it is time to stop running and visit a sports therapist for expert diagnosis and treatment. Anyone who does a lot of exercise or sport gets aches, sprains, strains and inexplicable twinges from time to time. Usually these are minor and disappear by themselves with a few days’ rest. Sometimes they may benefit from a cold compress (bag of frozen peas) or some anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen.
But when a pain is more intense, comes on during your exercise and keeps on returning, your body is sending you a clear warning. Don’t ignore it and don’t be tempted to self-diagnose from the internet – you cannot hope to know all the possibilities that a trained sports physiotherapist or osteopath will need to eliminate in working out the cause of your pain.
It’s also very important that the sports therapist helps you work out why you got injured in the first place, if you are to avoid a relapse in six months’ time. Injuries not caused by a specific event or accident (we call them “chronic” or “over-use” injuries) can develop for many reasons, including: poor technique, over-training, the wrong footwear, a need for foot support, a change of running surface, a consequence of another unconnected injury (eg, in your back) and so on. Part of your rehab will involve pinpointing how you got your injury in the first place and correcting that problem.
If you have developed shin splints, you will probably be advised to stop running for a couple of months, during which time your therapist will give you specific shin-strengthening exercises and guide you through your gradual return to full activity.
To stay fit in the meantime, you could switch to swimming or running in deep water (a very challenging workout for your heart and lungs). Or use an arm-cycle machine if your gym has one (leg cycling may be unhelpful). Avoid anything that loads your injured lower leg and ankle or repeatedly flexes the ankle. Above all, make sure you do the rehab exercises your sports therapist will prescribe, and be patient: too much too soon could land you in worse trouble in the longer term.