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  • Dr. Kristen K. Schulte, PT

The "S Word"

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

It is cold and windy outside, which can only mean one thing: Track season is around the corner for area high school athletes. For so many track athletes, the only thing more synonymous with track season than wind and cold is the “S word”…shin splints.

They creep up slow then all of a sudden fast, threatening the season of track stars of all events. When I have in the past moonlighted as “Coach Schulte”, the shin splints started rearing their ugly heads in week 3 of the season.

“Coach! Do you know anything I can do for my shin splints?” As any other coach or trainer had ever told them, I had to recommend ice and rest. I had no magic cure because the truth was that it was too late. If they would have asked me in February, I would have had all sorts of preventative recommendations for them. But they were asking me in April, and it was too late.

What are shin splints? Known professionally as “Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome” (MTSS), shin splints are just an inflammatory condition. That’s why it is “too late” to treat them in April. Once inflammation takes hold, the only way to cut it is with ice, anti-inflammatory medication (if you are into that), and rest. And rest is not something an athlete is interested in doing part way through the season, so they keep training hard and hope that the ice and possible ibuprofen sticks while they continue to inflame their legs.

Most commonly, people with MTSS complain of pain on the inside of their calves (along the bone) while walking, running, jumping, or in severe cases at rest. MTSS is typically caused when a person’s calves are very tight, so the muscles in the front of their lower leg and foot must work extra hard to propel the leg. Working overtime is a direct link to inflammation in those muscles, and voila! shin splints. Oftentimes, there is also a correlation between MTSS and weakness in core, hip, and foot musculature. This does not mean that people with MTSS are weak globally, but chances are, there are some stabilizer muscles that you don’t even notice that are not firing properly to protect the big muscles that are getting overused.

The good news: I care about those small muscles. I know how to test those muscles. I know how to analyzed running and jumping gait, and I can certainly recommend corrective exercises to help you (or your child) avoid MTSS this track season. It isn’t just a cliché; the best medicine is prevention. Get scheduled now so that you aren’t asking your coach what you should be doing in April.

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