Legs from Hell! – Shin Splints (Part A)

From Melbourne to Milwaukee to Meath, the haunting thought of Shin Splints is one which sends shivers down the spines of nearly all Irish dancers! Shin Splints are not anywhere near being in the same death – like category as the bubonic plague, however, they are that one agonising annoyance which every dancer avoids. Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, is probably what you will hear it described as, by experts. This is just before they lean over the table and prescribe you a selection of “diclofenac” anti- inflams so that you can just get through your set at the Oireachtas or, your figure dance for the Nationals. Not to mention the fact that, well, all these years, all this effort, all the blood, the blisters, the bubble socks, and now to be jaded by the dancers curse. At the end of the day will just taking a pill help you get through it all?

Talking from personal experience, every time I have taken a pain killer for some injury, whether it be Shin Splints, a soft tissue injury or even a fracture, I seem for a brief moment to envisage, that I am invincible. I try belting out each step harder than the one before, because well hey, my legs have no idea of the pain that awaits them. From most of my leg numbing experiences, the next day is not always the prettiest feeling. Due to the previous night’s exercise I now feel 10% worse off and my legs are that extra bit more painful. As a result, I think it’s been about 3 years since I have danced on anything form of Ibuprofen or the occasional paracetamol, because they are not long term remedies. When I get a headache, or an ailment which is realistically, “pain killer worthy” now, the stuff actually works.

Let’s get technical-
Shin Splints are the pain felt through the shin bone – referred to as the Tibia – which is the larger of the lower leg bones, joining the ankle and the knee. Shin Splints are often described as being something of a niggling pain at first, which if left untreated can result in the dancer being barely able to walk. Shin Splints always seem to attack dancers towards the most important part of the dancing season, when they are putting in more work than they have before. This is why they are classified as an “overuse” injury. Trauma is what causes Shin Splints and this is attributed to the way Irish dancers jump, pound the hard floor and overall place great stress upon their legs for significant periods of time.

Over the last twelve months I have begun to look into and discover that Shin Splints in Irish Dancers must be caused by something more than just pounding the floor excessively, or our, now athletic sport, would not exist. What I have found to be the key in preventing those tiny leg fractures we like to call Shin Splints from occurring, is an understanding of our leg muscle imbalances and weaknesses in certain muscles. In simple terms, there is a strong correlation between dancers who struggle to flex their foot upwards – commonly referred to as dorsiflex – and dancers who have Shin Splints. I have come across this on more than one occasion in the last year and even with myself, the stronger and looser my ankles have become and, the more flexion required in my steps, the lesser my Shin Splints have affected me.

I will break this down for you…..
Trauma causes microscopic fractures in the shin bone – Tibia. This is due to a weakness in the Tibialis Anterior (muscle next to shin) and Extensor Digitorum Longus (other muscle beside shin), teamed with excessive use and stress into the legs. Ankle dorsiflexion (flexing foot up) is the action which both these muscles control. If there is a weakness in these muscles, there can also be a weakness in the ability to control the ankle effectively whilst executing a dance. Certain moves may prove hard to do etc.

Leg Anatomy

When a dancer is overly focused on pointing their toes, and trying to get that perfect line with their leg, more often than not, the Gastrocnemius and Soleus (calf muscles) are working harder and harder which causes them to strengthen over time. However, when a dancer gets to a certain point and they begin to feel shin splints, this has probably occurred because dancers have neglected to work their flexing just as hard as they worked their pointing. Whenever a muscle imbalance is created, it is usually caused by a lack of equal training, and this is no different for Irish dancers.

Part 2 will follow and will include exercise methods.

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