Shin splints is the name for pain in the shins, or the front of the lower legs, usually caused by exercise.
They’re common in people who do a lot of running or other activities that involve repeatedly putting weight on the legs, such as tennis or basketball.
They aren’t usually serious, but can stop you from exercising and may get worse if you ignore them. It’s important not to run through the pain.
They can usually be treated at home and should start to get better within a few weeks.
Symptoms of shin splints
Shin pain doesn’t always mean you have shin splints. It might be a sign of some other problem.
The following are two conditions that are sometimes mistakenly diagnosed as shin splints.
Pain on the anterior (outside) part of the lower leg may be compartment syndrome—a swelling of muscles within a closed compartment—which creates pressure.
To diagnose this condition, special techniques are used to measure the amount of pressure. Sometimes surgical “decompression” is required.
The symptoms of compartment syndrome include leg pain, unusual nerve sensations, and eventually muscle weakness.
Pain in the lower leg could also be a stress fracture (an incomplete crack in the bone), which is a far more serious injury than shin splints.
A bone scan is the definitive tool for diagnosing a stress fracture.
However, there are clues you can look for that will signal whether or not you should get a bone scan.
The pain of shin splints is also more generalized than that of a stress fracture.
Press your fingertips along your shin, and if you can find a definite spot of sharp pain, it’s a sign of a stress fracture.
Additionally, stress fractures often feel better in the morning because the bone has rested all night; they often feel worse in the morning because the soft tissue tightens overnight.
Shin splints are also at their most painful when you forcibly try to lift your foot up at the ankle and flex your foot.
These are 7 factors that can potentially trigger shin splints for athletes:
Starting or intensifying a sport or training. Shin splints are common when someone is starting a new sport or training regimen as tissues respond to increased use.
Wearing unsupportive shoes. Shoes that don’t offer good support and cushioning—even some running shoes—can be a trigger.
Running or playing sports on hard surfaces. This is especially true if you’re making a lot of starts and stops, jumping, or running on a hard surface. This can also make you more susceptible to stress fractures.
Running on hilly or uneven terrain. Activity that makes your legs and feet readjust frequently can increase the likelihood of shin splints.
Having preexisting foot and ankle problems. These include flat feet, high arches, or hyperpronation, which is a gait problem that occurs when too much weight falls on the inside of the foot.
Having poor running form. This can include your feet hitting the ground too forcefully at the heel.
Having tight calf muscles. Tight calf muscles can put extra pressure on your shins.
Often, shin splints can be treated with rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain medications for a few days, and then you can resume activity.
How Are They Treated?
They often heal on their own. If you see a doctor, expect to get a thorough physical exam. She may want to watch you run to look for problems. She might also take X-rays or bone scans to look for fractures.
Rest your body. It needs time to heal.
Ice your shin to ease pain and swelling. Do it for 20-30 minutes every 3 to 4 hours for 2 to 3 days, or until the pain is gone.
Use insoles or orthotics for your shoes. Shoe inserts — which can be custom-made or bought off the shelf — may help if your arches collapse or flatten when you stand up.
Take anti-inflammatory painkillers, if you need them. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin, will help with pain and swelling.
These drugs can have side effects, though, like a greater chance of bleeding and ulcers. Use them as directed on the label, unless your doctor says otherwise.
How do you avoid shin splints?
So there’s plenty you can do to treat shin splints, but clearly it’s far better to avoid them altogether. Start by making sure you’ve got the right kit.
Wearing the right gear is important. Check your trainers are supportive enough. Specialist running shops can give you advice and information about your trainers. Orthotic insoles for your shoes may also help to improve the way you run.
It’s also important to build up your activity gradually, and if you are having problems, consider moving your runs off-road.
When you start exercising again, start slowly. If you get shin splints again, stop the activity and rest for a few days before starting the exercise at a lower level of intensity. Build up the amount of exercise you’re doing gradually.
It’s important to listen to your body, find a level of exercise that it can tolerate and slowly build on that, while allowing your shin enough time to heal.
I’d advise running on a soft surface such as grass, rather than on roads.
You should also be working on strengthening your glute muscles if you start running a lot, as well as stretching regularly.
If problems persist, you could even take a look at changing your whole running style with the help of a physiotherapist.
When to see your GP
It’s a good idea to see your GP if your pain doesn’t improve despite the treatments mentioned above.
Your GP may:
- Ask about your symptoms and examine your legs to try to work out what’s causing your pain
- Refer you for an X-ray or special scan of your legs – an X-ray may be normal, so a more detailed scan may be needed to help with diagnosis or identify other causes of lower leg pain
- GP may refer you to a physiotherapist – they can assess your injury, show you some exercises, and recommend a suitable programme of activity
- Refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon or a consultant in sport and exercise medicine