New to running? Or thinking of running your first marathon even though you haven’t run further than 5k before? You could possibly be at risk of developing Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (MTSS), commonly known as shin splints.
What is it?
MTSS is when there is pain along the inner part of your leg during and possibly after activity. This is a very common injury and is caused by the overuse of muscles in your leg. I see a lot of patients with this pathology during the start of a new sport season and/or a drastic increase in their amount of running. Most commonly, people who are at risk for getting shin splints are young individuals with higher body mass index (BMI) and low bone density. Low bone density is most commonly found in women with a history of osteoporosis but can also be found in young women athletes. Activities that require a lot of running and activities on hard surfaces also increase the risk of developing MTSS.
Anatomy and Physiology
The lower leg is made up of 2 bones, the tibia and fibula. In MTSS, the periosteum of the inner part of the tibia is affected. The periosteum is the outer layer of the bone in which muscles attach. Inflammation and pain occurs due to repetitive pulling of the muscles on the periosteum. The most common muscles involved in MTSS are the posterior tibialis, flexor digitorum, and soleus muscles. These muscles primarily help stabilize the lower leg and foot and aid in pushing off while running. Another muscle commonly involved is the tibialis anterior muscle. This muscle primarily helps lift the foot off the ground.
MTSS is typically diagnosed by clinical symptoms. The primary symptoms include pain that is brought about with activity and tenderness to touch along the tibia. An MRI can be used to help rule out any more serious pathology such as a stress fracture or compartment syndrome. A stress fracture, although a separate injury, can develop if MTSS is left untreated. Your injury may have progressed to a stress fracture if you feel your pain even at rest and not just with activity. Compartment syndrome occurs when there is too much inflammation in the leg which then starts to compress the nerves and blood vessels that go to the foot. This is also accompanied by numbness in the foot and severe weakness in the leg.
The severity of the injury depends on the amount of symptoms in correlation with the amount of activity that is performed. In the beginning stage, pain only occurs with activity and is resolved at rest. As the pathology worsens there is more intense pain with activity and discomfort lasts longer after exercise is stopped. In the final stage, pain occurs even at rest without activity and can indicate a more serious pathology.
How do we treat it?
Immediate rest is recommended right after the onset of pain. However, when returning back to activity it is beneficial to work with a physical therapist to gradually increase intensity. In the clinic, I like to use a set of guidelines depending on the pattern of pain and activity to successfully return my athletes back to their sport. Abdominal, low back, and hip strengthening can also help to alleviate the work of the lower leg muscles and in turn, decrease the stress on the tibia. Stretching and joint mobilization is also beneficial to decrease the forces on the tibia.
Once my patients are feeling a low amount of discomfort, I do a gait/running analysis to see if there can be any changes made to the way they walk/run. This is crucial in preventing future injury. Shoewear while exercising is also important. If you are running in the same shoes as last season, you should consider getting a new pair. Sneakers that support your arch and have more shock absorption will help reduce the strain on the muscles of the leg. Also, I like to implement various taping techniques and modalities as necessary to facilitate healing. If you start having any shin pain with running, you should try and run on a softer surface (i.e. dirt versus concrete).
If you are experiencing any discomfort during exercise or hit a plateau in your workout, call us at Zion Physical Therapy to help you reach your goals!
- Ray Ragunauth, DPT