Shin splints

Dr. Nadheer K M (AIIMS)MBBS

February 06, 2020

April 21, 2021

Shin splints
Shin splints

Imagine setting off on a leisurely run and being set back by a burning sensation in your shins! Overuse or sudden use of certain muscles without warming up first may lead to stress injuries, and shin splints are one of them. The medical term for shin splints is medial tibial stress syndrome.

Of course, injuring yourself on the road to fitness or while trying to gain mastery over your sport can be a hindrance. The pain and discomfort are frustrating as they stop you just when you are looking to amp up your regular routine. But if you suspect shin splints to be the cause of your leg pain, then the smart thing to do is put your feet up and rest those muscles.

Shin splints are a common injury - especially among sportspeople, dancers, and fitness enthusiasts. You may get them when you increase the intensity of your routine workout, for example. Running, dancing and sports like basketball can also put repeated stress on the shins - the front portion of your lower leg below the knees and above the ankles - and lead to shin splints.

Inflammation and pain in the shin muscles, connective tissues or tendons leads to the pain associated with shin splints. The recovery time for shin splints is usually two weeks to four weeks, although some people may take up to six months to recover fully. Medical practitioners suggest avoiding activities that stress the shin bone, muscles and connective tissues - like running - during recovery.

Although known to heal with time, shin splints can develop into more serious complications if ignored. Stress fractures (bones cracking due to overuse), tendonitis as well as compartment syndrome (increased pressure within muscles causing reduced blood flow to the legs) are potential risks for those who have experienced shin splints in the past.

Types of shin splints

Shin splints are, admittedly, a loose term to describe the pain and swelling in different parts of the shin. There are at least three distinct types of shin splints:

  • Anterior tibial stress syndrome results in pain in the lower part of the shin, towards the outside of the leg.
  • Posterior tibial stress syndrome affects the upper inside part of your shin - the front lower leg.
  • Stress fractures in the lower leg or the shin bone are also referred to as shin splints, but these can take a longer time for recovery.
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Shin splints symptoms

Your journey towards a fitter self can be interrupted by a common injury such as shin splints, which can strike at the most unexpected of times. But here are a few signs of the injury that may convince you to rest or seek professional help:

  • Either sharp or dull pain in the shin during or after a run or exercise
  • Injured shin may be tender to the touch and slightly swollen
  • Weakness in the feet as a result of pain in the shin
  • Dull pain even while resting
  • Tightness in the shin

Shin splints causes

Inflammation and pain in the shins, specifically in the muscles, tendons and tissues around the shin bone (tibia) may result in severe pain in the lower leg. The common factors that cause shin splints are:

  • Being new to an exercise or running programme
  • Moving to a more intensified training/running routine
  • Walking or running uphill
  • Wearing worn-out or old footwear
  • Not warming up and stretching before exercise
  • Running or walking on hard surfaces like a paved road
  • Poor posture or running technique

Having flat feet, high arches, and/or weak leg, hip and core muscles may also increase your risk of getting shin splints.

Prevention from shin splints

Right from the basics of following a training schedule to giving yourself the right amount of rest to recover from a hard day’s workout, here’s a list of things you should keep in mind to avoid injuries like shin splints:

  • Warm-up before setting off on a morning run, playing a sport or beginning a workout.
  • One of the benefits of stretching is that it helps to avoid injuries like shin splints. So, make sure you spend at least five minutes to stretch your muscles and mobilise the joints before attempting any workout.
  • Change your footwear or use insoles for better posture and cushioning. Experts recommend changing your shoes after 600 - 800 kilometres. Though you may have to change them sooner, depending on the type of terrain you run or play on, and how you run.
  • Strengthen your legs, hips and core muscles.
  • Switch from high-impact sports like running or interval training to low-impact ones like cycling or swimming, at least periodically, to give your shins a rest.
  • Run or train on softer surfaces.
  • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Wear compression socks or Kinesiology tapes to keep the shin muscles and tendons from becoming too tight.
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Diagnosis of shin splints

While initial symptoms of shin splints go away with time, persistent pain in the shins should be a cause for concern, as it will begin to intrude on your pursuit for fitness. Visit a doctor if the initial symptoms don’t go away even after resting and applying ice to the swollen area and/or using over-the-counter pain medication for up to a week. 

  • Your doctor will perform a physical exam to diagnose the injury properly and rule out any other causes for the pain in your shins, like tendonitis or a stress fracture.
  • Additional imaging like an X-ray may be required to check for any broken bones, like in the case of a stress fracture.

Shin splints treatment

Because your shins are likely to be inflamed in the event of shin splints, here are a few things you can do to keep the pain and inflammation under control, and then recover:

  • Rest
    • Stop the activity you’re performing. Pushing yourself to carry on despite the pain may aggravate the injury. So take a break when you feel your shins have started to hurt.
    • Keep your legs raised and try not to put weight on your legs for a few days.
    • Take a break from your workout or running schedule and give your legs some well-deserved rest.
  • Ice the injured area. Your shins will feel like they’re on fire. Cold compression and icing the shins is a great way to bring down the pain and keep the inflammation in check.
  • Over-the-counter painkillers may also help in bringing down the pain of shin splints.
  • Massaging the shins gently also helps to control the pain and soften the tight tissues around the shins. You can use a foam roller, too.
  • Physical therapy: if your pain hasn’t come down or if it returns, your doctor may prescribe physical therapy to address the problem and help you recover faster.

Visit a doctor as soon as possible if the pain increases despite resting and icing the injury.

Risk factors for shin splints

The reasons behind shin splints are fairly straightforward. It strikes people with active lifestyles and those who play sports more often.

  • Marathon or long-distance runners, trail runners, hikers and trekkers and people who play sports that involve running and changing direction in quick bursts are more prone to suffering shin splints.
  • Athletes or those who follow a workout or running regime tend to increase the intensity of their exercise quickly - this may also result in exerting more pressure on the shins and lead to shin splints.
  • Dancers are also more prone to this kind of injury.
  • Being flat-footed increase the risk, too.
  • Running on uneven trails can also increase the risk of shin splints.
  • Running or playing sports in old, worn-out or ill-fitting shoes also increase the risk.
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Takeaways for shin splints

It is important to stop running or performing the activity that is causing shin splints in the first place, as running through the problem is only going to aggravate it and increase the recovery time. If you get shin splints often, you could also consult a sports therapist for small changes to your running/playing style that can reduce the stress on your shins.