Welcome to the next installment in the Tread & Butter Foot Health Journal: how to reduce pain and heal shin splints through stretches, exercises, and general foot health! For this article, we’re continuing the deep-dive journey into foot health to bring you the latest information on how to heal shin splints and reduce shin splint pain—all through good foot health, the right arch support, and targeted stretches and exercises for shin splints.
Much like we did in our previous article on plantar fasciitis, we’ve spoken with yet another experienced physical therapist in Bend, Oregon, and asked him how foot health can help reduce shin splint injuries. We then took what we learned from our conversation about the close relationship between shin splints and foot health, and combined it with our own background and research in arch support and insoles. The result? This little shin splints guide for your reading pleasure.
So, happy shin-splint healing, y’all. And be sure to check out all the other useful feet-first articles from our ongoing Foot Health Journal.
Shin splints. What are they and what causes them? As people who exercise and roam and move our bodies, we’ve all heard of and/or experienced shin splints at some point or another. If pressed, though, could you clearly explain what causes shin splints and what occurs when you experience them?
Don’t worry, before we started designing arch support and insoles for shin splints, we wouldn't have been able to explain it either. But now, now we know the basics of shin splints like the bottom of our feet. And we’re happy to share what we’ve learned with you.
To keep it simple, let’s start with the fact that shin splints are very common and very related to exercise. As a term and a sensation, shin splints are defined by an experience of pain along the tibia (the inner edge of the shinbone). They also usually develop post-exercise or following some kind of physical activity—most often running, walking, or jogging.
Yes, it’s true that shin splints are typically associated with running (track, road, or trail). But it’s also true that any kind of vigorous exercise—from hiking and skiing, to tennis, soccer, dancing, and beyond—can bring on shin splints. Especially if you’re starting from scratch, relatively speaking, or going from zero to one hundred in terms of intensity, volume, or duration.
Scientifically speaking, and according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, shin splints are caused by an “inflammation of the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around your tibia.” Technically known as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints “typically occur along the inner border of the tibia, where muscles attach to the bone.”
While shin splints can be attributed to a number of factors, they most commonly occur when you overwork the muscle and bone tissue in your leg through repetitive activity. Basically, whenever you make a sudden change to your activity levels and either increase the intensity or volume or duration of your exercise routine, you increase the chances of developing shin splints.
Other structural and environmental factors that can contribute to causing shin splints include:
To help give you an idea of what shin splints feel like, and determine whether or not you’re experiencing pain as a result of them, we’ve compiled a handy list of common shin splint symptoms and indications. Remember, the area we are zoning in on for shin-splint detection is located along your tibia, where the muscle and tissue meet the shin bone.
While you should always consult a professional about what’s actually going on, some things you’ll most likely experience if you’ve found yourself face to face with some good old fashioned shin splints are:
We’ll hear from Grant Carson, the local physical therapist we spoke with regarding the correlation between foot health and shin splints shortly, but for now: let’s get proactive. And by proactive we mean let’s take a look at a few key exercises and stretches for shin splints so you can start weaving them into your routine. Along with other essential shin splint stretches and exercises, these ones are a big part of the proactive picture that’s going to help you heal, treat, and prevent shin splints.
*Some Quick Notes: Rest is an important part of any healing process—always include rest! Also, always warm up before starting any of the following shin splint stretches; for video tutorials on some of these, we like what we see over at Healthline, The Prehab Guys and The Stretch Coach (No, we don’t know Mr. Stretch or those Prehab dudes. But we like their styles and their credentials.). If you’re unsure of what to do or where your pain is really coming from, please consult a trusted professional.
(adapted from: Healthline)
(source: Stretch Coach)
(adapted from: Prehab Guys)
This seated ankle dorsiflexion stretch for shin splints is a great way to train the dorsiflexors of the foot/ankle complex (which is often a culprit of shin splints). Remember to focus on slowly lowering the weight back towards the floor to gain the biggest benefit from this movement.
(adapted from: Healthline)
As we’ll hear from Grant in the next section, shin splint treatment and prevention isn’t just about stretching the shin and calf area. Our shins are only part of the larger system that is our bodies, and so shin splints can’t be addressed without looking at things like core imbalances and hip muscles. Core imbalances can lead to lower-extremity injuries, and hip muscles are what help stabilize the pelvis during running and walking. Neither should go overlooked when treating shin splints.
Don't let shin splints harsh your mellow. Photo: Adobe
OK, now let’s talk about how to prevent shin splints through good foot health, and let’s at last talk about it with physical therapist Grant Carson! Grant, what are your thoughts on shin splints and foot health?
“Hey! Thanks for having me. OK, so when I treat people, whether for shin splints or some other issue, I emphasize the deconstruction of symptoms that are driving a pattern. Like, if you go to a therapist and they only look at your feet when your foot is hurting, they are missing the bus. It’s the whole picture that needs to be looked at, the whole chain reaction from head to toe.
What I’m getting at here is that shin splints are never just about our shins, calves, and lower legs. They’re about our hips and pelvis, our core and our feet—and about our overall foot health.”
We touched on that a little earlier, but, how so?
“Your feet and your hips are partners—they control rotational movement. If your feet and hips (hinge and sagittal plane joints) aren’t functioning like they could or should, then it’s your knees and back (and potentially your shins) that pay for that.
For some time I worked for the Louisville Ballet and, yes, dancers are very prone to shin splints—much of what I saw had to do with both footwear (ballet shoes are brutal), overuse, and the correlation between hip muscles and rotational movement.”
OK, well, I know ballet dancers put their feet through the ringer. But how important is proper-fitting footwear for us mere mortals?
“Basically, it’s important to keep in mind that what feels good walking around at the store is not necessarily appropriate. There are a lot of slipper-like tennis shoes and running shoes out there, but most people don’t have the ligament strength to walk around in them all day, let alone run in them.
While I'm a big believer in doing body-weight exercises barefoot (for balance, proprioception, and strength-building), I do not recommend heavier weights or advancing rapidly with plyometrics without proper foot support. All of which leads me to this: When we’re talking about the long game (of life and overall body health and function), orthotics and footwear are pretty important. You don’t have to feel like you need to stick to one type of shoe or brand or insole shape, though. Like most things in this world, it’s good to mix it up, to see what works according to where your body’s at in its stage of life.”
Adapt and thrive (or at least feel better)—that makes sense. Thanks so much for talking with us, Grant. Your wisdom regarding foot health and shin splints is very much appreciated.
Need help reducing or preventing shin-splint pain?
With shin splints, we know there’s no singular solution to prevention or treatment. Rather, the best shin splint prevention and treatment is about a confluence of actions, including rest and the right exercises and stretches.
And the best arch support for your (unique) feet.
To see how Tread & Butter can change your world from the ground up, check out our high arch and low arch cork insolesor send us a note about your specific insole needs. We’re always here to inform, support (literally), and help you say goodbye to shin splints.
Grant Carson is the owner and physical therapist guru behind Tumalo Wellness in Bend, Oregon. As someone with more than 20 years of experience delivering physical therapy to elite athletes, major sports teams, and mere mortals alike, Grant is well-versed in helping people (and feet) re-pattern themselves away from pain and towards healing. Got questions? Give him a shout or book a PT session, and be sure to tell him we sent you.