Shin Splints in Footballers Explained
What are shin splints?
Many players suffer from shin splints throughout their career, but the best way for you to deal with the condition (if you are unfortunate enough to ever have it) still seems unclear especially among youth players. “What can I do to help with my shin splints?” is consistently one of our most commonly asked questions.
Shin splints basically describes a pain and inflammation which you will experience along the shin bone (tibia) as a result of muscle, tendon or bone damage to the area. The pain is usually felt in the lower two-thirds of the tibia and typically worsens the more you try to play on it – until becoming so severe that you are forced to sit out.
It’s believed that the symptoms of shin splints develop mainly due to a sudden increase in training volume combined with repetitively training on hard, unforgiving, high impact surfaces.
What does it feel like?
The pain from shin splints feels like a burning, aching or just an awareness that something in the lower leg doesn’t feel right. The pain can spread over the whole lower leg - not just the knee or ankle (like in overuse injuries). The pain usually only occurs during activity rather than when resting. Often, it feels like a dull ache but the pain sharpens when you start exercising (sometimes on and off during exercise).
Over time, the pain increases in frequency and intensity so that it is continuous through exercising and lasts for hours or even days afterwards.
Why do shin splints develop?
There are more factors which can increase your likelihood of developing shin splints, the underlying theme however is that the structures within your lower leg lack the strength and conditioning to be able to handle the excessive, repeated impact going through them.
Here are some of the other causes of shin splints:
Poorly fitting footwear which lacks support
Not warming up properly
Tight calves or Achilles tendon
Lack of core, glute and quad strength
Poor ankle stability
Weak foot arch muscles
Flat feet or feet that roll inwards (outside of the foot raised off of the ground)
The significance of these factors is magnified when there is a sudden increase in activity level. When the shin bone is stressed, in order to become stronger, it begins a process of remodelling and during this re-formation the bone actually becomes more prone to injury. As a result, you’re then at an increased risk of falling into a vicious cycle of shin related problems if the issue isn’t dealt with in the right way.
How can you treat shin splints?
As you might expect, the most obvious thing to do is rest and see a physio. In severe cases (like a stress fracture) you may have to rest for up to 3 months, but usually it will be a case of managing your rest time with your playing time so that you can continue training whilst allowing for recovery (discuss this with your physio).
You must be honest with yourself and extra cautious with any ongoing injury…if you continue to play in pain, the resulting change in your movement mechanics will significantly increase your risk of developing another injury on top of the shin splint injury.
The immediate action you should take when suffering from pain is to stop and apply ice to the area for 10-20 minutes at a time and repeat that several times per day – to help numb the pain and decrease inflammation. You can also take anti-inflammatories to aid pain relief (this won’t speed up the recovery process).
If you are experiencing significant pain, as recommended above you should stop all high intensity, high impact activities and rest. During this period, you can exercise in water and maintain your aerobic conditioning on a bike (both low impact choices), however whilst symptoms persist you should avoid lower body strength and flexibility work – save this until you can comfortably perform a light jog for 1 mile completely pain free (a good rule of thumb).
After symptoms have subsided, your return to training and match play should be gradual. At that time, you can resume training but only at 50% of the pre-injury training level. Further increases should be no more than 10% per week and if pain recurs, you should decrease training intensity to a level where there is no pain and wait another week before trying to increase training again. I know it sounds super frustrating, but you have to think long term here…
What can you do to prevent getting shin splints?
We highly recommend:
Getting screened for anatomical risk factors (like over-pronation and knee valgus)
Ensuring that you are adequately conditioned (a huge part of this is nailing your pre-season)
Eating a healthy diet with sufficient calories, vitamins and minerals
Warming-up and stretching properly before matches and training sessions
Adding more flexibility training into your schedule
Ensure you are wearing appropriate footwear for both training and matches
Making sure you properly rehab any existing injuries
Gradually build up playing time following an injury
Avoid playing on hard surfaces
Brush up your running style and general movement mechanics
What exercises will help shin splints?
After returning to training, you should focus on improving core stability, as well as strengthening your glutes to improve running mechanics. Exercises like glute bridges are particularly helpful. Strengthening and stretching of the calf muscles regularly is also important because this will help to prevent muscle fatigue in the direct area.
Proprioceptive balance training is also crucial to improve your neuromuscular capabilities. This can be done with a one-legged stand or a bosu ball for example. Improved proprioception will increase the efficiency of joint and postural-stabilizing muscles and help to prevent future injuries from occurring.
If you have ever suffered with shin splints and it’s become a recurring issue for you, I hope this article aids you in not only over-coming the injury but actually understanding the ins and outs of it so that you can not only help yourself but your team mates too.
Our full season programme includes injury prevention work and is highly effective in preventing shin splints and other common football injuries.
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Craig, D. I. (2008). Medial tibial stress syndrome: evidence-based prevention. Journal of athletic training, 43(3), 316-318.
Galbraith, R. M., & Lavallee, M. E. (2009). Medial tibial stress syndrome: conservative treatment options. Current reviews in musculoskeletal medicine, 2(3), 127-133.
Story, J., & Cymet, T. C. (2006). Shin splints Painful to have and to treat. Comprehensive therapy, 32(3), 192-195.
Thacker, S. B., Gilchrist, J., Stroup, D. F., & Kimsey, C. D. (2002). The prevention of shin splints in sports: a systematic review of literature. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(1), 32-40.