Why 'Toughing Out' Shin Splints Is a Terrible Idea for Athletes

You must heed the warning signs of shin splints before they get so severe that you're forced to miss an extended amount of time.

Overuse injuries tend to creep up on you and slowly get worse until you are no longer able to compete. Many runners deal with shin splints at some point. The most prominent mistake athletes make when they notice symptoms of shin splints is doing nothing about them. There is a saying that goes "hope is not a strategy," and that applies here. Hoping that your injury will magically go away does nothing.

Shin splints are caused by overuse. The condition is defined by the Mayo Clinic as pain along your tibia (shin bone) caused "by repetitive stress on the shinbone and the connective tissues that attach your muscles to the bone." That's why you need to heed the warning signs of shin splints before they get so severe that you're forced to miss an extended amount of time.

The Light Bulb Flickering

Before any light bulb goes out, it will start to flicker first. It is giving you a warning sign that it's starting to get weak, so you better get to the store and stock up on some new bulbs. And if you ignore this warning sign, what happens? You get to sit in the dark because you didn't pay attention.

Overuse injuries work the same way. They become larger problems over time when nothing is done about the "flickering" warning signs. Shin splints often start with a very slight pain in the shins. The pain is noticeable but not enough to stop running. You shrug it off and assume it's just something random that you can sleep off.

A few weeks later, you notice you can barely even touch your leg without feeling a lot of pain in the lower leg. When you go for runs, your leg is throbbing with every stride. You may have a slight change in your gait, but only you notice that at this point. You begin icing every day in hopes that it will fix the problem.

In the final stages, you can barely walk, let alone run. You go and see the doctor and find out that you have a stress fracture in your shin and you'll need to be put in a boot. You officially accept that you are injured, and now all you can do is sit on the sideline and wait to heal.

Potential Causes for Shin Splints

When resolving an injury, the most important place to start is with the cause of the injury. Often when we feel the pain, we think that the problem is located in the same place the pain is. But in reality, pain can often be the consequence of dysfunction in another area. For example, you could have poor running mechanics that cause you to put more stress on the shin bone. The key, then, is not massaging the calves, but changing how your foot strikes the ground.

Here are some common causes of shin splints:

  • Tight Calves
  • Tight posterior tibialis
  • Weak anterior tibialis
  • Wrong shoes
  • Poor running mechanics

Change the Light Bulb Early

The second you go for a run and notice that you are starting to get shin splints, you need to do something about it. The key is being proactive instead of reactive. Don't wait for the injury to sideline you when you have the power to get the injury to go away.

The first step is being honest with yourself. Admit that you are hurting and that it can get worse if you do not take action. The consequences of getting hurt are a missed season, frustration, lost opportunity, lost money or a lost scholarship. The price tag of a serious injury is high.

Next, you're going to want to talk with your team and get as much support as you can. This should include your coaches and teammates. The reason this is important is that they should be able to help you adjust your routine. Maybe your coach will let you ride the bike for a few weeks to take the pounding off your shins, or your teammates will not push you as hard during training. The hardest thing for any athlete is competing at less than 100%, but the reality is that a week or two of being smart can help you ultimately avoid losing months to injury.

You'll also need help from a medical professional. You may have an athletic trainer at your school, but many of them are overworked and underpaid. They know how to help you, but they may have too many athletes under their care to give you much individual attention. Seeing a physical therapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist or massage therapist can be a game changer. Unfortunately, just reading this article won't give you enough info to properly analyze your situation. When you see a healthcare provider, you put your health into the hands of someone who's trained and practiced helping athletes. Every injury is different, so having a professional analyze your situation and design your game plan is hugely beneficial.

The goal is to get back to being healthy as quickly as possible. What do you think will do that better, reading an article, or building a relationship with a local professional? It is an easy call, and in the long run, it will save you a lot of stress at a time.

Once you are healthy, the goal is prevention of injury. Don't give up on taking care of your body just because you are feeling good at that moment. Take care of your body at all times and take all minor aches and pains seriously before they develop into something more debilitating. Change the light bulb before it finally blows out!

Photo Credit: comzeal/iStock, jacoblund/iStock, Pavel1964/iStock

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Topics: SHIN SPLINTS