Healing Shin Splints with Massage Therapy
Shin splints are a common injury, especially once the nicer weather brings people outside for more activities. “Shin splints” refers to the pain felt along the shin bone, most often caused by inflammation.
Before getting into specifics, let’s start with some anatomy background. Wrapped around every muscle and organ in your body is something called connective tissue. It also wraps around the bones in the lower leg (tibia and fibula). Here, this tough, fibrous membrane is called the periosteum. This connective tissue is special in that it repairs and gives nourishment to the bones, and serves as a point of attachment for the muscles to the bones. When the periosteum is injured, it can’t do its job. This is one of the reasons massage of the lower legs is so important; increased circulation can bring blood into the area to help repair any damaged tissue. Massage can also help prevent the muscle in this area from becoming so tight that fluid gets trapped in between the different layers of connective tissue, which can lead to pressure and pain. Massage can not only bring blood circulation to the area, but can subtly stretch the muscles and help flush out any build up of fluid in the lower leg. This is caused by tight, overworked muscles in the area, and differs from swelling in the ankle. It’s unlikely you would see or feel the fluid; you would just feel the symptoms of tightness and pain.
Because the shin muscle is so closely attached to the bone, when you have a trauma or pull this muscle – while running for example – the muscle pulls on the periosteum. This in turn puts pressure on the bone and can cause a stress (hairline) fracture. The body soon sends a massage to the brain that it is in stress, and it responds by sending blood and endorphins to the affected area.
Sometimes the shin muscle gets too tight and starts pushing on the connective tissue that is wrapped around it, causing ischemia, which is insufficient blood flow to the area. After a while, the shin muscle becomes inflamed – hot, red, and puffy – an indication that it needs to rest and recover. Before any massage can be done, the inflammation must subside. Ice, elevation, and rest are recommended for approximately 72 hours, then the massage therapist can begin working to break down the scar tissue.
Another cause of shin splints is misalignment of the foot bones. If a runner changes her gait to compensate (for example, shifting her weight to the inside or outside of the foot), the shin muscles become tighter or overstretched, pulling on the muscle and connective tissues and resulting in the symptoms described above. Although a chiropractor would realign the foot bones, the massage therapist can work on the muscles around the foot bones to alleviate pain.
A more advanced case of shin splints is called anterior compartment syndrome and sometimes requires surgery to cut through the different layers of connective tissue to relieve the pain and pressure. However, if scar tissue forms as a result, it can obstruct proper blood flow to the muscles (ischemia). Fortunately, massage can help minimize the obstruction caused by the scar tissue. The therapist can perform stretches on the leg muscles, flush out any build up of fluids, and break down the scar tissue so the muscle can move more freely and get the proper flow of nutrients.
Even if you are not a runner suffering from shin splints, a massage can put a spring in your step.