The Skinny on Shin Splints

Shin splints are an equal opportunity injury – not just a runner’s injury, but very common to dancers too! 

In dancers, pronation, awkward foot/ankle alignment and tibial stress fractures are often offered as the reason for shin splints.  What is universally accepted is that shin splints are an overuse syndrome.  In other words, excessive loading to the tibia (shin bone) more than it can handle. 

Anytime a dancer starts feeling shin pain and it is getting worse with activity it is an indicator they should get to the doctors and get checked out.  Don’t try to keep working through the pain unless you want to risk increasing your rehab time.  You need a proper diagnosis. Is it stress fracture, compartment syndrome, medial tibial stress syndrome or myofascial trigger points? All will present with shin pain.  

The doctor I worked for had a cool way (even if a bit unscientific) to check for stress fractures when a dancer came in with shin pain.  He had a tuning fork that he would hit on the edge of the table then place on the shin bone.  If the vibration of the tuning fork created pain in one specific spot he would suspect a stress fracture.  Remember stress fractures don’t immediately show up on x-rays until bone growth/healing has started.  Pretty cool, eh? 

The type of shin splints that are felt in the upper/front part of your shin are often caused by the anterior tibialis muscle being overworked.  I felt this area when I first got back to hiking up and down some rocky areas and took me a few days and working every night on massaging the trigger points before it went away totally.  

With that type of shin pain you’ll often find a tender spot on the upper third of the anterior tibialis muscle.  You can rub gently to release it, put the sore spot against the edge of a chair or on a pinkie ball or foam roller and imagine the tension slowly melting away.  The goal is not to create pain – the goal is to work with the discomfort and feel it letting go.  Often finding the sore spot and then doing 10 foot circles in each direction will help mobilize the tissue.  It should feel looser and more relaxed afterwards… and if you don’t re-injure the muscle by overworking it again the next day, you should feel as if you are on the road to recovery.  

Other areas of shin pain, deep between the bones or the lower part of the shin area will require more extensive rehab and rehab should be guided by your PT or doctor. Trying to release any muscular soreness as described above typically won’t make it worse, but it might not make it better either – which is why you want to get shin splints properly diagnosed and not just ‘push through the pain!’  You need to correct any faulty alignment and respect the pain. 

Bottom line… the longer you try to keep dancing/jumping/running with shin splints… the longer it may take to recover.  Having shin splints doesn’t mean that you have to become a couch potato and not exercise – but you do have to allow the tissue that is loudly talking to you to heal. 

To your success, 

Deborah 

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