Shin Splints: Can You Avoid Them When Playing Footy, Soccer Or League?

While AFL, soccer and rugby league all vary in the demands they place on the player’s body, the large amounts of running and the speed and agility with which they are played, paired with the power behind certain movements ranging from footwork to kicks and high-powered tackles, mean that one of the conditions that all of the players of these three sports are at risk for is shin splints.

Shin splints is a relatively common injury we see at Sole Motion, affecting up to 35% of runners, and in turn, those regularly involved in running sports. Here’s a look into what shin splints really are, what causes them, and what you can do to help treat or prevent them.

What Are Shin Splints?

Shin splints are best known as the pain that comes on at the front of the shins during physical activity. Looking deeper into shin splints, we find that it is actually a non-specific term that can refer to three separate conditions:

  • Medial tibial stress syndrome
  • Exertional compartment syndrome
  • Stress fracture of the shin bone

Medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS)

The most common shin pain of the three above is MTSS, and it occurs when there is too much stress to the front and inside of the shin bones. This stress is typically caused by overusing the muscles that attach to the shin bone, or the lining of the bone itself, leading to irritation and degeneration. The result for players is shin pain and swelling, that may stay mild, or become severe enough to stop you in your tracks either during the game, or afterwards.  

While common causes for overusing the muscles at the front of the shins include your foot type (like having flat feet), biomechanical problems in the feet or legs and muscle tightness (like in the calves), this is all exacerbated by running during the game, which places a high demand on the lower limbs. Interestingly, some researchers are now attributing heavily-cushioned footwear to be one of the causes of shin splints due to their high-tech engineering that allows athletes to land on their heels and place excess force through the lower legs.

Exertional compartment syndrome

The second cause of shin splints may be compartment syndrome. There are four compartments in your lower leg, distinctly separated by your tissues. Each compartment only has so much space to contain specific muscles, arteries, nerves and other tissues. 

Damage or overuse to muscles within the front (anterior) compartment means that these muscles swell, increasing pressure within that compartment and resulting in pain or discomfort, a feeling of tightness, and a swollen appearance. As the muscles within the anterior compartment are heavily used during running sports, these symptoms often start during or after a game. 

When the muscles have a chance to rest, the swelling subsides, and with it your painful symptoms. Unfortunately, they can also quickly recur the next time you’re out on the field.

Note: this type of compartment syndrome is also known as chronic (or exertional) compartment syndrome and requires treatment with your clinician, but is not limb-threatening. Acute compartment syndrome, on the other hand, is considered a medical emergency and you must contact your doctor immediately. Signs for acute compartment syndrome include severe pain, pale skin tone at the leg, numbness, a faint pulse and weakness when trying to move the affected leg. 

Stress fracture

Stress fractures are caused by repetitive stress and pressure on the bone, which can occur when repetitively running through a game with rapid stops, starts and changes in direction. Starting as small cracks with little symptoms or pain, stress fractures can quickly progress to severe, painful fractures that can see you sitting on the sidelines while you recover. 

Symptoms of a stress fracture at your shin bone (tibia) may include pain and tenderness along the bone in a specific area. You may or may not see some swelling, and the pain can worsen with physical activity and ease with rest.

It’s important to stop and treat stress fractures before they have a chance to worsen. The earlier the detection and treatment, the easier and faster they are to repair.

Can Shin Splints Be Avoided In AFL, Soccer And League?

As there are so many factors outside of our control that can lead to shin pain, the answer to this question is that while it’s almost impossible to prevent them entirely, it is definitely possible, and often straightforward, to help reduce the risk of shin splints. Our clinicians do this by considering: 

  • Sports boots: do they fit well, and adequately support and prepare the feet for the given sport
  • Muscle weakness: how is the strength and balance in the quads, glutes and the core, as well as the intrinsic foot muscles
  • Muscle tightness: is there an ankle equinus, what is the flexibility availability in the Achilles and calves
  • Ankle and knee stability: are these joints strong and stable?
  • Player preparation and conditioning: what regime is each player performing during training like warm-ups, and is this sufficient
  • Gait: what does the players gait pattern during walking and running, both in their sports shoes and when in bare feet, tell us

After performing a comprehensive assessment including a video gait analysis and understanding exactly what is causing your pain and the likely reasons, we form a treatment plan that may use a combination of a strengthening program, mobilisation, gait retraining, orthotics, dry needling, laser therapy, interX electrical stimulation, and more. We also work in a multi-disciplinary and holistic environment, meaning that if our practitioners identify any ‘gaps’ in your overall care that exceed our expertise, we’ll refer you appropriately to help you get the best results.

Experience the Sole Motion difference for yourself and book your appointment online or call us on 1300 393 338.

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