Ask Amy: Understanding Shin Splints

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I've been diagnosed with shin splints. What are they, exactly? Is the bone actually splintering, or are the muscle and tissue inflamed? Can I push through the pain? —Sarah


The term "shin splints" is actually a misnomer. According to Dr. Elizabeth Manejias, a dance medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, the phrase simply means shin pain. The two most common causes of shin pain have very different treatments, so it's crucial that you receive the correct diagnosis.

The first cause is called medial tibial stress syndrome, which usually develops because of faulty alignment or technique (such as forcing turnout). The muscles along your shin have attachment points on the bone, and when you chronically contract the muscles, traction occurs, causing the outer layer of tissue surrounding the bone to swell. "It's painful, but you can usually work through it," says Manejias. Icing after dancing and taking anti-inflammatories help alleviate symptoms, but you should also see a physical therapist to treat the source of the problem.

Stress fractures are another, much more serious, cause of shin pain. Your bones are constantly rebuilding, but excess stress on the tibia (from repetitive jumping, hard floors or overuse) hinders its ability to repair itself. "Stress fractures take up to 12 weeks to heal and need to be treated aggressively," says Manejias. That may mean wearing a boot and taking serious time off. "It's not something you want to ignore."

How do you differentiate between the two? With medial tibial stress syndrome, soreness is distributed over a longer area of the shin, whereas a stress fracture will have one concentrated spot that's extremely sensitive when touched. But don't diagnose yourself. Make an appointment with your doctor, who can order a bone scan or MRI to determine whether you have a fracture.

Have a question? Send it to Pointe editor and former dancer Amy Brandt at askamy@dancemedia.com.

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