Shin splints refers to pain and swelling of the lower leg. Sometimes this condition is also called chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS). The lower leg is divided into four sections or compartments.
Each compartment contains muscles, blood vessels, and a major nerve. The compartments are surrounded by stiff connective tissue called fascia. This helps keep the sections separate.
As the muscles are used, they expand in size and volume. In fact, muscle fibers can swell up to 20 times larger during and after exercise than when in a resting state. If the inelastic compartment doesn't respond to the expansion, pain and loss of blood supply can occur. Athletes such as dancer or runners use muscle activity that repetitively stresses one or more of the compartments.
Compartment syndrome can be a very serious condition. Loss of blood to the area can lead to death of muscle tissue. In extreme cases, gangrene can even occur. Once the diagnosis is made, stopping the aggravating activities is required. Physical therapy can be a successful conservative approach.
If symptoms aren't improved after six to 12 weeks of therapy, then surgery may be needed. Some experts claim that only surgery can cure compartment syndrome. The fascia is split open to allow muscular movement and expansion inside the compartment. This procedure is called a fasciectomy. In some cases, the fascia may be removed (fasciotomy) or a combination of the two procedures may be needed.