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These causes of shin splints are the culprits behind both true shin splints, or medial tibial stress syndrome, and the more general use of the term shin splints referring to most pain causing injuries around the shin area including stress fractures, muscle inflammation and the buildup of edema.
Overloading places more pressure or force on the lowest part of the leg, particularly where the shin bone is connected near the ankle, than it can safely handle. The shin is like a long lever arm. When the knee and ankle flex a lot of force is transferred to the shin bone. If the angles between the shin bone and joints are exaggerated (like leaning forward while running uphill) then math takes over, the force is magnified and your lower leg is overloaded. Just like any other material placed under too much stress, the shin bone can break or rupture.
What typically causes shin splints of the medial tibial stress syndrome type is that the overload causes repeated sharp impact of the lower shin and the periostium, the fibrous membrane that covers the bone. Those impacts irritate the periostium and cause it to become inflamed putting pressure on the shin and surrounding anatomy and causing pain, one of the key symptoms of shin splints.
The same basic action is true for other types of shin splints. The overloading can cause micro fissures through the bone, or a complete stress fracture. It can cause injury to muscles and joints with swelling, inflammation or edema accompanying it. All of which can cause pain.
Biomechanical issues, such as poor body mechanics can cause or increase the overloading or it can be directly responsible for the irritation that leads to inflammation. In the second case the shin splint is caused by excessive rubbing of the periostium, ligament, tendon, muscle, etc. That rubbing, much like chaffing your skin, makes the internal tissue react by swelling, tightening or hardening. That leads to the pain and tightness associated with shin splints.
Specific activities that can cause shin splints are:
- Running, especially uphill and downhill
- Tennis and other racquet sports
Common causes of shin splints include:
- Performing activities, like exercising, on hard surfaces: like concrete, hard wood floors or asphalt
- Performing activities on uneven or unstable ground or other surfaces
- Performing activity with frequent starts and stops or jumping
- Adding additional weight or impact to your activity, like using ankle weights or jumping repeatedly
- Sudden increases in activity level, such as from no activity to moderate activity, or significant increase to the activity's duration or intensity
- Bad footwear
- Poor body mechanics
- Inadequate stretching or flexibility, especially of the lower leg, ankle or Achilles tendon
- Flat feet or high arches
- Poor balance, weak core muscles or non centered torso position (leaning forwards or backwards too much)
- Landing on your toes or the balls of your feet
- Over-pronation or supination
- Inadequate arch support
Preventing shin splints is a much easier task once you understand the causes of shin splints. Utilizing proper and safe body mechanics and avoiding overloading your shin and ankle are the keys.