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Acupuncture for Tibial Stress Syndrome (Shin Splints)

by Alex A. Kecskes

Basketball players, soccer players, and in particular, runners, will often suffer from tibial stress syndrome, commonly referred to as shin splints. The pain of shin splints occurs because the tibia (shinbone) and the connective tissues attached to it become overloaded. This happens when athletes train too hard or for too long, or when they suddenly increase the intensity or duration of exercise. For example, when runners add to their mileage, or alter the terrain or incline of their workout shin splints are a likely result. Shin splints may be accompanied by swelling and hardening of the soft tissues.

While there are a number of physical therapies and medications one can take to relive the symptoms of shin splints, one must begin by resting and limiting any stress or load to the shin area. A physician should be consulted to evaluate the severity of the injury and to suggest possible treatment.

One possible treatment increasingly used by athletes for shin splints is acupuncture.
This treatment is most effective when the symptoms first occur. Based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture works on the whole body to release a variety of substances including endorphins, serotonin, neuropeptides, and neurotransmitters. Acupuncture can promote healing, reduce pain, increase local microcirculation, and attract white blood cells to the area. This can speed the rate of healing, reduce swelling, and disperse bruising.

In 2002, researchers conducted a random controlled trial* to assess the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating shin splints. Forty athletes with shin splints were divided among three treatment groups: standard sports medicine, acupuncture, and a combined group who received both. The patients received at least two treatments per week for three weeks. The acupuncture and combined groups reported significantly lower pain levels during all activities and at rest. For overall effectiveness, acupuncture was rated at 72.5%, the combined therapy at 54.5%, and standard sports medicine at 46.5%. Self-medication with anti-inflammatory drugs was also significantly lower in the acupuncture and combined groups.

In the trail, the primary treatment was directed at the edge of the tibia where microtearing of the affected muscle usually occurs. The anterior edge was treated when the tibialis anterior was affected, and the medial edge was treated when the tibialis posterior muscle was involved. Between 10 and 15 needles were threaded obliquely and subcutaneously along the edge of the tibia between the soft tissue and bone. Other points were chosen at the practitioner’s discretion to balance and remove obstructions from the energy channels. The study revealed that acupuncture could be an effective modality for relieving pain associated with shin splints and for reducing reliance on anti-inflammatory medication.

Before attempting any acupuncture therapy for the treatment of shin sprints, one should first consult a primary care physician. If he or she advises that acupuncture may help you, find a licensed massage acupuncturist who is nationally certified through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (www.ncbtmb.org) or the American Massage Therapy Association (www.amtamassage.org).

*Acupuncture & Tibial Stress Syndrome [Shin Splints]. Journal of Chinese Medicine 2002 vol 70.

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