It's that dull pain that throbs in the front of your legs during aerobics. Or the tingling in your feet that won't go away after a breakneck game of basketball.
Summer is the season for overused muscles and, most notably, shin splints, the layman's term for chronic exercise-induced leg pain. "People are out and the weekend warriors think they can take it all. And then they start falling apart," said Lew Schon, an orthopedic surgeon in Houston who has studied the phenomenon of shin splints.
Although the condition is called shin splints, pain can surface around the lower leg. In most cases, the problem clears up after a week or two of rest. Sometimes, for the exercise enthusiast who just won't quit, the pain can continue and develop into serious injury, requiring drug treatment or surgery. "Everybody has their own level of overuse," Schon said. "Some people can run 70 miles a week and have no problems. And some people will try to run 10 miles a week and develop pain." Runners, joggers, basketball and volleyball players, aerobics participants and professional dancers are all likely candidates, he said. Shin splints are responsible for an estimated 10 to 15 percent of running injuries.
There are several terms for the disorder, including chronic compartment syndrome, where there is a buildup of pressure in a muscle as a result of exercise; tendonitis, or inflammation of a tendon; nerve entrapment, which can occur on the side of the calf; myositis, or inflammation of a muscle; and periostitis, or inflammation of the membrane over the bone. In 1988, the American Journal of Sports Medicine published a study of 98 people who complained of shin splints. About 25 percent of them suffered from chronic compartment syndrome and another 25 percent experienced periostitis, the study found. But sports authorities say you don't need to be an exercise fanatic to suffer leg pain. Women who stand for long periods on hard floors and who wear high-heeled shoes often "experience shin splints and they don't even know it," said Marjorie Albohm, a certified athletic trainer and advisor at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis.
Albohm recommended getting a good pair of shoes for any exercise activity, stretching well before each session and, if there are problems, taking a few days off. People with flat feet should be particularly vigilant, she said. "If you have flat feet or poor arch support, it's more likely you'll get shin splints more frequently," she said. "Arches help absorb the shock more efficiently." Both Schon and Albohm advised against "running through" the pain. "Anything that causes you to alter your style warrants medical attention," Schon said.