The Real Reason You Have Shin Splints

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Shin splints are not inevitable for anyone, although many physical therapists and doctors treat them as if they are. Their prescription probably sounds familiar: Lay off running and other offending activities until the pain behind the shin bone goes away. While that will stop the aggravation, it is not getting to the bottom of the root cause — an imbalance in the body.

First, make sure that it is just pain and not a bigger problem. If the pain is sharp and more localized, this could indicate a stress fracture, and you should go see your doctor. If the pain is dull and covers a large area, however, the source is likely inflammation caused by overuse of your shin muscles, the posterior tibialis and anterior tibialis, which run along the tibia.

The problem can be spotted in the lower body when walking: As you push off, your glutes and upper calf muscle should be working. Ideally, the weight will transfer smoothly from the heel to the toe as you land, utilizing the mechanical advantage of the foot arch to absorb the weight transfer.

Of course, most of us sit too much and hunch too much and pull ourselves out of alignment throughout the day — things that ruin this form. Shin splints are the expression of this imbalance. The posterior tibialis will be overused in pushing off (when your glutes and upper calf muscle aren’t working properly), and the anterior tibialis is overworked as you are moving from heel strike to toe off. The result is two cranky, overused muscles and that horrible ache along your shin.

Instead of hoping rest and ice will solve the problem, you can get to work on correcting the imbalances in your body once and for all. The four releases below — which you should practice three times a week before working out, especially if you have an office job — will help you break of the tightness in your muscles, allowing them to work better as you walk. The releases will also help redistribute the force absorption and production so that your shins aren’t taking a beating.

Glute release
Begin in a sitting position. Place the lacrosse ball under the right glute muscle in the area you wish to release. Bend your knees up with your feet flat on the floor, leaning into the lacrosse ball. Cross your right leg over the left leg and roll back and forth over the lacrosse ball. Repeat in 30 second to two minute intervals on each side.

Shin release
Kneel with the outside of your shin on top of the lacrosse ball. Do not place the ball on your shin bone. Roll yourself up and down over the ball. Once you find a spot that is tender, stop and point your foot up and down for 30 seconds or until you feel the muscle release. Repeat on both legs.

Calf release
Sit with your calf on top of the lacrosse ball. Place your other leg over the one you are releasing and roll yourself up and down over the ball. Once you find a spot that is tender, stop and point your foot up and down for 30 seconds.

Plantar fascia release
Standing with a lacrosse ball or golf ball: Place the ball on the bottom of your foot. With weight placed through your leg, gently roll the ball under your foot. Once you find a spot that is tender, stop and point your toes up and down. Roll on the ball for one to two minutes. 

David Reavy, founder of Chicago-based React Physical Therapy, is the creator of the Reavy Method, a whole body approach to physical therapy and exercise. Reavy works with numerous pro athletes from the NFL, NBA, MLS, and the WNBA.

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