Shin Splints

Photo diagram of a person's legs highlighting the location of shin splint pain

Could I have shin splints?

To start finding out, take a closer look at where you feel pain.

What areas hurt?
Shin splint pain affects the areas along the inside or outside of the shin on the front of the lower leg.

What causes shin splints?

Drawn diagram of a leg with shin splints highlighted to show the causes

You try to do the right thing for your health and start walking or running, or increase the exercise you already do, and bam—you're hit with nagging pain and pressure radiating down the front of your lower leg.

The culprit could very well be shin splints, a common injury when you're starting or increasing physical activity. Shin splints can affect the inside or outside of your shin bone, called your tibia.

So what's causing that pain and pressure? Experts don't agree on the exact mechanics, but the bottom line is that the muscles connecting to the shin bone are stressed and aggravated.

How does that happen? A whole host of things can trigger shin splints, also called medial tibial stress syndrome, simply by straining your leg muscles:

  • Constant pounding of the feet and legs in activities such as running and walking.
  • Repetitive motion, such as walking on a treadmill for long periods.
  • Frequent stops, starts and changes of direction in sports such as tennis or soccer..
  • Flat feet, or feet that roll inward.
  • Feet that point outward at an angle.
  • Not warming up or stretching properly.
  • Ill-fitting shoes that don't provide proper support.
Think you might have shin splints? TAKE THIS SELF-ASSESSMENT
Self- Assessment
Quiz
Are any of these statements true for you?
  • My pain is worse when I first start exercising but then seems to ease.
  • My pain used to subside after the exercise, but now it bothers me even when I'm resting.
  • My pain intensifies when I flex my foot up from my ankle.

If you answered “yes” to any of these statements, you show some key signs of shin splints. Try the recommendations on treatment and relief from the experts at FootSmart and The Podiatry Institute below, but if the pain persists, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Are there any serious concerns?
Photo of a man pressing thumbs against his shin to check for a stress fracture

Most cases of shin splints will be resolved by following the advice below. But shin pain can also lead to a stress fracture—a small crack in the bone—which is more serious if left unaddressed.

The simplest way to check is to press your fingertips along the sore area. If the pain intensifies in a distinct spot on the shin bone, it could be a stress fracture. If you think you may have a stress fracture, make an appointment with your doctor to find out.

How do I treat and prevent shin splints?
Photo of a man putting on a compression wrap to help treat his shin splints

First, you have to heal the damage that's already been done. Then you have to prevent that damage from recurring.

To relieve the pain and alleviate the aggravation, follow the classic RICE principle:

  • Rest: You'll need to stop or reduce your physical activity for a while, to allow the tissue to heal. While healing, you can take up lower-impact activities such as swimming and cycling.
  • Ice: Use an ice sleeve or wrap to help cool and massage your shins. Even rubbing a frozen cup of water on your shins a few times a day can help.
  • Elevation: Lie down with your legs raised above your heart to reduce blood flow and swelling.
  • Compression: Use wraps or sleeves to increase circulation and decrease pain.
Photo of a woman in athletic shoes stretching to help prevent shin splints

It may take a few weeks before your shins are feeling back to normal. Be patient—restarting your activity too soon could just aggravate the pain again.

As you prepare to resume exercise, keep the following recommendations in mind:

  • Wear shoes with proper support and a good fit. Get rid of worn-out shoes that have lost their support.
  • Add additional cushioning to your shoes. Because shin splints often result from high impact exercise and activities, heel cushions and cushioned insoles can help you better absorb shock.
  • Try wearing compression wraps or calf sleeves, which provide stability and prevent further trauma to the tissue and muscle.
  • Strengthen your leg muscles with calf raises, leg presses and other exercises.
  • Warm up your muscles properly before any physical activity.
  • Stretch properly, especially your Achilles tendon and calf muscles, before and after any exercise.
  • Vary your exercise regime with lower-impact activities such as swimming or cycling.

Insoles and orthotic shoe inserts are sometimes recommended to help shin splints, although this is another area where the experts disagree. If you have flat feet, however, arch supports may help reduce leg strain and prevent shin splints.