MY EXPERIENCE WITH SHIN SPLINTS
How I got them and how I got rid of them.

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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and have had no medical training. Nothing I state should be taken as a recommendation. My experiences may have no relevance to anyone else's. I am posting this page only as an isolated example of one case so that others might get an idea of what was involved in this particular case of having shin splints.

My surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff made it impossible to lift weights or jog for two months. Not wanting to get completely out of shape, I decided to switch over to long distance walking. It wasn't aerobic, but at least it was something. I had a treadmill so I set up a television, VCR and boom box in front of it so I could have entertainment during the hours I would be spending walking.

On the first day I tried it I discovered that to get into the fat-burning range (118 heartbeats per minute for me) I had to set the treadmill at its maximum incline (10 percent) and walk at 3.4 miles per hour. Since I was used to jogging up to five miles a day this wasn't much of a strain. (About the 5 miles a day... I wasn't in all that good a shape and it took me almost an hour to do it.) I knocked off five miles walking in the first morning while watching Bogart do his thing in The Big Sleep. It felt pretty good and I enjoyed having the opportunity and excuse to get in some serious movie time so later that same day I did another five miles, this time while listening to music.

This went on for two weeks and I was really getting to enjoy it. Ten miles a day of walking up a steep incline might not seem like much fun but with a fan to keep cool, a sport sipper of water and a television to watch it wasn't bad. Then on the morning of the first day of the third week I jumped out of bed and almost feel on my face writhing in agony. Burning pain was coursing up and down the fronts of my shins. It was so intense I could hardly walk. What had happened?

The Internet provided the answer. I figured this might be a case of shin splints, something I'd heard of but never experienced. It was.

After reading through several sites located through a Google search, I discovered that shin split is the lay-term used to describe symptomatic pain caused by an inflammation of the muscles or tendons of the front of the shin. They can become so bad that the muscles can be damaged, tendons torn, and even splinters of bone pulled free.

From the site at http://www.thestretchinghandbook.com, I learned that the typical treatment was immediate cessation of the causative activity (walking in my case), cold compresses to reduce swelling, and elevation of the injured limbs. This should be repeated as often as possible for 72 hours and start as soon as possible after the injury.

While there are many possible causes, the three main ones are:

1. A sudden change in the type of exercise (In my case I changed from jogging to walking in one day. Walking puts much greater demands on the muscles used to lift the toes than does jogging. This was particularly an issue in my case since as once long-time tennis player I tended to run on the balls of my feet instead of heel-to-toe, which made matters worse. This was strike 1 against me.)

2. A sudden increase in exercise intensity (I went from practically no walking to 10 miles a day. Strike 2.)

3. And worst of all... walking up hill for long periods of time. (Strike 3 and I was out.)

The reason walking up hill is so bad is that to maintain balance I had to lean forward. This increased the amount the toes had to be raised with each step, which created an enormous increase in the amount of strain on the muscles responsible for that action.

 
Fortunately, the pain hit before I had done any serious damage. I hate cold compresses so I chose to skip those but I did elevate the legs. I got a couple of good books, hobbled over to a recliner and pretty much laid there for two days. When I got up 90 percent of the pain was gone. By the end of the third day I was back to normal. (Whew)

 

You'd think that the last thing I'd want to do is go back to walking, yet in the interests of science I'm making myself a guinea pig. I'm going to go back to walking but this time ease into it over a week and only walk with the treadmill set flat and level. I intend working my way back to two, 5-mile walks a day and see if the shin splint problem returns. I should be able to report the result of this experiment at the next update in late January or February.

UPDATE Well, I never made it up to the two, 5-mile walks a day. I'd worked up to two, 2.75-mile walks a day (The odd distance came about because that's how far I could walk while watching one episode of Stargate SG-1) at 4.0 mph on a perfectly level treadmill when the shin splint pain returned. Either I increased the distance too fast again (I spent a week easing up to this distance) or that's just too much walking for my 53 (almost 54) year old legs. I'm taking a week off and will then go back to jogging on the balls of my feet and see what sorts of distances I can work up to without shin pain. If that goes well, I'll repeat the walking experiment and see how that goes.

UPDATE NUMBER 2 It turns out I must not have completely healed from the first case because the injuries from the experiment above were considerably worse. They took five weeks to heal before I could walk a mile without pain. I've returned to jogging and as long as I land on the balls of my feet can go five miles without any discomfort. But, if I then try to walk it off I get minor shin splint pain within three minutes. I plan to continue running for another month then very slowly start adding in walking.

UPDATE NUMBER 3 Impatience got the better of me. After only two weeks I added walking back into my routine. I begin by a short 22 minute jog at 5 mph and follow that with half an hour of walking at 3.2 mph. So far I've had no shin splint pain, except once when I forgot to lower the treadmill's incline. Then I started to feel a minor twinge after only a few minutes. I lowered the treadmill and the twinge immediately left. What this told me is that, as the sources I researched earlier stated, walking uphill can be a prime cause of shin splints.

I experimented with increasing the speed and also noted some shin-splint type discomfort as I approached 4.0 mph. This suggests that speed, as well as an incline, may induce shin splints. This may have something to do with the fact that as you walk faster a point is reached where leg muscles must be used to stop the forward motion of the leg rather than letting it stop on its own, as is the case with slower paces. This inertial effect in some way may encourage the development of shin splints.

I intend to continue walking with the treadmill set level, slowly increasing my walking speed to see if I can get back to 4.0 mph without shin splints.

UPDATE NUMBER 4 After a week at 3.2 mph, I experimented with increasing the speed. At only 3.4 mph I began noticing an occasional, very slight tightness in the area where the shin splints used to be painful. I take this as a verification that speed as well as incline can cause them. I plan to keep the speed at 3.4 mph for one week to see if the tightness goes away. If it does, I'll increment the speed again.

UPDATE NUMBER 5 After another week I was able to speed things up to 3.6 mph without any problems.

FINAL UPDATE: After two more weeks I was up to walking four miles a day at 3.8 mph without discomfort. I take this as a strong indication that the cause of my shin splints was starting off walking too far, too fast, and most critically, walking uphill.

 

Return to the main page for more medical topics or to browse 80 other subjects: everything from kites and rocket engines to the weird world of lucid dreaming.