Do I have shin splints?
There are a few different types of injuries that can cause pain in the lower leg and more specifically in the front of the leg, so it is always important to get any pain that has lasted longer than 2 weeks checked out by a qualified physical therapist (e.g. musculoskeletal therapist, osteopath, or physiotherapist). In general, the pain from shin splints is localised to the front of the leg along the tibia, usually in the mid portion of the bone, this area of pain can span about 5cm.
These symptoms differ from other injuries to the lower leg such as stress fractures (of the tibia) where the points of pain are quite localised along the tibia itself, compartment syndrome where the while leg will feel sore and muscle tears where the pain is more likely to be around the muscle belly or tendon.
What causes shin splints?
Shin splints are often labelled an ‘overuse’ injury which basically mean you have overloaded your body (in terms of how much stress you have placed on it). It may be that you have increased your training load too quickly or you have gone through a period where you have been rehearing or performing more intensely than you normally would.
There are also a number of underlying causes which can predispose you to developing shin splints, such as excessive pronation through the feet which is often associated with weakness in the lower leg muscles. Improper footwear that does not support your foot adequately while dancing or even walking can also impact on the development of shin splints. Or an imbalance in the muscles of your lower leg can contribute to shin splints, mainly when there is excessive tightness through the calf muscles which in turn places extra stress through the front of the leg. Finally the way you are built can make you more or less susceptible to developing shin splints, namely the alignment of your bone and laxity of your joints.
Some specific advice for dancers
Be aware of your technique at all times, in particular how your weight is distributed across your feet. For ballet dancers, your weight should be spread even across your forefoot and your heel. Your weight should also be quite forward with approximately 60% of your weight going through your forefoot. Also, forcing your turnout through your ankles can lead to problems as can allowing your ankle to roll forward particularly the back foot when working in 5th position. When you are not dancing be sure to wear good shoes with sufficient arch support.
Dancing on hard surfaces is also something to be weary of. This can place excessive stress on your shins. Practicing and performing on shock-absorbant floors is always ideal, however this is not always possible so if you do have to dance on a hard surface try to keep it to a minimum and be sure to warm up well and ice your shins afterwards.
For shin splints the number one treatment is rest. In addition to that you can also ice your shins regularly and use other ‘at home’ treatments such as a spikey ball or foam roller to help ease the muscle and facial tension on the tibia. A good therapist will also be able to help provide you with relief through massage and other ancillary techniques (such as cupping and dry needling), as well as treating the underlying and associated cases and any secondary symptoms. Other things such as kinesiotaping and regular stretching can help to manage the discomfort and allow your body to heal.
Most of the time if shin splints are treated early we will see improvement and ‘recovery’ within a few weeks. More chronic cases will take longer to heal and will often require a longer period of rest. The moral of the story here is to put your energy into preventing shin splints and if they do occur get them treated quickly. Be kind to your body, it is your tool and your greatest asset, treat it well and it will love you back!