Shin splints: what to do when running hurts
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
What are shin splints?
The term “shin splints” describes pain felt along the front of your lower leg, at the shin bone. This pain concentrates in the lower leg between the knee and ankle. Your doctor may refer to the condition as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS).
Shin splints frequently affect people who engage in moderate to heavy physical activity. You may be more likely to develop shin splints if you participate in strenuous physical activities or stop-start sports such as tennis, racquetball, soccer, or basketball.
Sometimes the pain of shin splints can be so intense that you must stop the activity.
Shin splints is a cumulative stress disorder. Repeated pounding and stress on the bones, muscles, and joints of the lower legs prevents your body from being able to naturally repair and restore itself.
What causes shin splints?
The pain associated with shin splints results from excessive amounts of force on the shin bone and the tissues attaching the shin bone to the muscles surrounding it.
Shin splints can also result from stress reactions to bone fractures. The constant pounding can cause minute cracks in the bones of the leg. The body can repair the cracks if given time to rest.
However, if the body doesn’t get time to rest, the tiny cracks can result in a complete fracture or a stress fracture.
Who is at risk for shin splints?
Various activities and physical attributes can put you at risk of getting shin splints. Risk factors include:
an anatomical abnormality (such as flat foot syndrome)
muscle weakness in the thighs or buttocks
lack of flexibility
improper training techniques
running on a slanted surface or uneven terrain
running on hard surfaces like concrete
using inappropriate or worn-out shoes for running or working out
participating in sports that have fast stops and starts (like soccer or downhill skiing)
Shin splints are also more likely to occur when your leg muscles and tendons are tired. Women, people with flat feet or rigid arches, athletes, military recruits, and dancers all have an increased likelihood of developing shin splints.
Symptoms of shin splints
People with shin splints will experience some of the following symptoms:
a dull ache in the front part of the lower leg
pain that develops during exercise
pain on either side of the shin bone
pain along the inner part of the lower leg
tenderness or soreness along the inner part of the lower leg
swelling in the lower leg (usually mild, if present)
numbness and weakness in the feet
See your doctor if your shin splints don’t respond to common treatment methods or if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:
severe pain in your shin after a fall or accident
a shin that feels hot
a shin that’s visibly swollen
pain in your shins even when you’re resting
Treating shin splints
Shin splints normally require that you take a break from certain physical activities and give your legs time to rest. The discomfort will usually resolve completely in a few hours or at most in a few days with rest and limited activity.
The suggested amount of downtime is typically about two weeks. During this time, you can engage in sports or activities that are less likely to cause additional harm to your legs. These activities include swimming or walking.
Your doctor will often suggest that you do the following:
Keep your legs elevated.
Wear elastic compression bandages.
Use a foam roller to massage your shins.
Check with your doctor before restarting any activities. Warming up before exercising is also a good way to make sure your legs aren’t sore.
Can shin splints be avoided?
Steps you can take to avoid getting shin splints include:
wearing shoes that fit well and offer good support
using shock-absorbing insoles, which you can find online at Amazon
avoiding exercising on hard or slanted surfaces or uneven terrain
increasing exercise intensity gradually
warming up before exercising
making sure to stretch properly
engaging in strength training, specifically toe exercises that build calf muscles
not attempting to exercise through the pain
Any intensive exercise program requires strengthening of all surrounding muscle groups. Workouts should be varied to avoid overuse and trauma to any particular muscle group.
You should refrain from any intense exercise program if severe muscle pain or other physical symptoms develop.
An effective way to prevent shin splints is to strengthen the calf muscles and hip muscles, especially the hip abductors. Calf muscle strengthening can be done by placing your toes on the edge of a curb or stair and transferring your weight to one leg. Then slowly lower yourself and raise yourself up again. Repeat this 25 times. This will strength your calf muscles and help prevent shin splints.
An exercise to strengthen the hip muscles is done by lying on one’s side with the feet together. Rotate the hip outward and then back again and repeat 25 times. Placing a Theraband around the knees will strengthen the muscles more.