Shin splints are a common injury among athletes and regular exercisers. They’re usually nothing to worry about and are treatable.
The technical name for shin splints is “medial tibial stress syndrome” and occurs when the muscles, tendons and bone tissue around the tibia bone (the lower leg bone) become inflamed. For most, the pain typically occurs along the inner edge of the tibia bone, where the muscle attaches to the bone.
What Causes Shin Splints?
Overworking the muscle and bone tissue in the leg through repetitive activity is the most common cause of shin splints. Other causes include:
- Changing an exercise or conditioning routine – increasing the number of days of exercise per week, the duration, intensity or distance.
- Having flat feet or abnormally rigid arches.
- Not wearing the right athletic footwear.
What are the Symptoms of Shin Splints?
As mentioned, the most common symptom is pain along the inside of the tibia bone. There may be some mild swelling in that area as well. Shin splint pain can vary from person to person. For some, it will be sharp, for others dull and throbbing. The pain may occur just during exercise or sport, or only afterward. Pain may also be increased by touching the sore area.
Treating Shin Splints
- Rest is often your best bet. Lay off the activity that caused the initial pain for a few to several weeks. During that time, you can substitute low-impact exercise such as using an elliptical bike.
- An elastic compression bandage may prevent swelling.
- Icing with cold packs for 20 minutes several times a day can reduce inflammation.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen can reduce swelling and pain.
- Good supportive shoes while walking and during daily activities can reduce the stress on the shins.
- Orthotics, or shoe inserts, for those with flat feet may be beneficial. Shoe inserts can be custom-made or purchased at stores to help stabilize and align the foot and ankle and take stress off the shins.
Returning to Activity
You’ll want to be sure to be pain-free for at least two weeks before returning to the activity that caused the shin splints. When you do get back to activity, be sure to keep the intensity a milder than what it was. Also, exercise less frequently and for shorter durations, initially.
Preventing Shin Splints
If you’ve had shin splints, you know recovering from them can take time. Taking measures to prevent their reoccurrence is important, including:
- The right shoes – wear shoes for your chosen sport or activity; consider getting fitted to determine your foot shape (flat footed or high arches) and match your shoe to your foot pattern.
- Go slowly – build your frequency, intensity and duration slowly to avoid a repeat of shin splints.
- Cross train – good for lots of reasons and one is to avoid getting shin splints.
Other Causes for Lower Leg Pain
If shin pain persists despite taking the measures and precautions mentioned in this article, consider seeing your doctor for an examination of the lower leg, as other conditions can cause lower leg pain. Some of these conditions include:
- Tendinitis – occurs when the tendons that attach muscles to bones become inflamed. Notably if there is a partial tendon tear, the pain can mimic shin splints. An MRI can help diagnose tendinitis.
- Stress Fracture – a small crack in the tibia bone, typically caused by overuse. A bone scan and MRI can usually show stress fractures.
- Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome – a relatively uncommon condition that can cause similar symptoms as shin splints. In this condition, often brought on by exercise, pressure within muscles builds to a dangerously high level. Tests to check the pressure in the muscles before and after exercise can help diagnose this condition.