Lower Leg Injuries in Running: Common Causes and Treatment
Lower leg injury is quite common both among professional and amateur runners. It occurs due to undue strain on the muscles and ligaments – generally caused by pushing yourself beyond your fitness abilities. Today we will cover some of the most common types of lower leg injuries and offer helpful advice for treating them.
The most frequent type of lower leg injury is the shin splint (more commonly referred to in the plural, shin splints). Shin splints cause you to feel pain along the inner edge of the shin bone, between the knee and the ankle. Other symptoms of shin splints of varying degrees of severity are:
- Increasing pain in the front lower part of the leg (above the ankle) as you continue training
- Mild swelling of the lower leg
- Numbness and weakness in your foot, causing an inability to support your body weight properly
- Tenderness or soreness along the inner part of the leg starting from the knee down
The main cause of shin splints is infrequent exercising, following a pattern of intense training (running), taking a break from physical exercises and then returning to intense training. It is not an injury which happens overnight, but as an accumulation of stress and effort.
Shin splints can be treated by following the RICE method: rest, ice, compression and elevation. Your doctor may also prescribe pain medication or send you for further tests and investigations in case the symptoms persist. In some cases, the symptoms associated with shin splints are for more severe conditions such as fracture or compartment syndrome.
Tendonitis is another form of common lower leg injury in runners. The most frequent type is Achilles tendonitis. The main cause for this injury is a sudden increase in uphill or speed running. Also, if you switch from wearing running shoes to wearing racing shoes without allowing your legs to get used to the new type of shoe progressively, this can also cause Achilles tendonitis.
The symptoms of tendonitis are:
- Pain when stretching and contracting the muscles in your lower leg
- Reduced mobility and flexibility
- Swelling and tenderness in the back of your leg, above the heel
Tendonitis is also treated using the RICE method. In addition, your physical therapist may recommend a series of exercises to gradually increase the strength and endurance of your muscles and tendons. Only rare and severe situations (such as the breaking of the Achilles tendon) lead to surgery.
As we mentioned above, some of the symptoms of compartment syndrome can be mistaken for shin splints. In order to understand how compartment syndrome occurs, you have to know what happens inside your leg while you are running. Fuelled by the effort and increased blood flow, muscles will expand their volume by up to 20%. If the fascia (the tendon tying them to the muscles) is too tight and preventing the expansion,
Thus, your muscle will feel numb and painful, and will not work properly (contract or relax according to the movements you want to perform). In case of severe compartment syndrome, the pain in your lower leg will only start at a certain point during running and quickly increase to an unbearable level. The pain and swelling subside as you cease running, this is why it is difficult to diagnose this condition.
Surgery can be an option to treat compartment syndrome. However, patients experience complete recovery after the surgery, even returning to their professional athlete activities.
Apart from these types of lower leg injury, there is also inflammation of the large muscles in the posterior part of your leg – but this is a very common and simple to treat condition, requiring only the RICE method and a progressive increase of your fitness training.