Shin Splints: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Stress Syndrome

Shin splints are common exercise-related problems seen frequently in dancers, runners, or athletes who have recently changed or intensified their training routines. Shin splints recovery is mostly quick with the aid of some home treatment and doctor intervention. If left untreated, a shin splint could graduate into a stress fracture.

What are Shin Splints?

The shin splints definition is the inflammation of the tendons, muscle, and bone tissue around the tibia (shin bone), which is the largest bone in the front of the lower leg.  Shin splints pain typically can be felt in the area between the knee and ankle, where the muscles attach to the bone.

A shin splint is medically referred to as Medial tibial stress syndrome and causes shin splints bruising along the lower-thirds of the inside edge of the shinbone and shin splints knee pain. It’s an overuse injury from repeated pounding and stress on the bones, muscles, and joints of the lower legs. This in turn prevents the body from naturally repairing and restoring itself. Shin splints from walking get worse as you run and improve within hours of stopping.

If shin splints while running are not treated in time, they can turn into a stress fracture. Unlike the medial tibial stress syndrome, a stress fracture has a focal point of pain and tenderness that hurts less in the morning. It’s caused by a muscle pulling on the shinbone, eventually causing the bone to crack and increasing the shin splints recovery time

Causes of Shin Splints

Shin splints cause is not certain. Medical experts suggest that shin splints from running could be a result of small tears in the calf muscles, and tendons as you run. This in turn leads to shin splints stretching and irritation of the tissue around the shinbone and the formation of shin splints and pain.

For example, when you hit the trail, the calf muscles guide your foot to help it hit the ground efficiently. The same muscle that lifts the leg also controls the foot as it lowers back down. If it's weak, it loses control as you bring your foot down leading to shin splints calf pain. Additionally, training errors like sudden increase of mileage or intensity, lack of stretching, and poor footwear can lead to shin splints and knee pain.

Shin Splints Symptoms

Where do shin splints hurt? Most of the people with shin splints feel pain in the muscles, along the inner part of the lower leg, or on either side of the shin bone. One may also experience a dull ache in the front part of the shinbone and shin splint after running or exercising. This pain may be aggravated by touching the sore spot. 

Can shin splints cause ankle pain? In some cases, shin splints cause numbness and swelling on the ankle or the area around it. However, these symptoms are usually mild, if present.

Risk Factors for Shin Splints

Although anyone can get shin splints, certain people have a higher risk of dealing with shin splints. They include:

  • Runners
  • Military recruits
  • Dancers
  • People with flat feet or high arches.
  • Osteoporosis patients
  • Anyone with vitamin D deficiency or an eating disorder

Shin Splints Diagnosis

Before beginning treatment for shin splints, it’s good to get a clear diagnosis to understand whether shin splints can get worse and the right treatment procedure. The diagnosis is based on your medical history and a physical exam. 

Imaging tests such as X-rays and MRIs may be requested by a doctor and other specialists who help with shin splints pain by identifying the exact cause. A physiotherapist may examine the leg, gait, and how you walk. Hopping or standing on the sick leg may help in recommending the most ideal cure to shin splints.

Shin Splints Treatment

Most shin splints cases heal on their own. However, there's no way to know the exact shin splints' healing time as it depends on what caused them. You can use over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, and acetaminophen that help alleviate pain from shin splints in one leg or both. The Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation (RICE) method is also a great shin splints cure.

  • Rest. Avoid all activities that cause you pain, swelling, or discomfort. During this time, you can engage in stretches for shin splints or low impact exercises such as swimming or walking.
  • Ice. Shin splints ice or heat treatment aids in relieving pain and tenderness. Place ice packs on your shins for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day.
  • Compression. Wearing elastic calf compression sleeves can help with shin splints swelling after shin splints heat or ice packs helps prevent additional swelling.
  • Elevation. Elevating your shins after icing further reduces inflammation.

Surgery is rarely used in shin splints treatment, but a vascular surgeon may perform a fasciotomy whereby small cuts are made in the fascia tissue surrounding the calf muscles. This can potentially relieve some of the shin splints pain. However, it’s not clear how effective this surgery is.

Shin Splints Prevention

Wearing proper footwear and modifying your exercise routine can help prevent shin splints from recurring. Can shin splints cause knee pain? Too much exercising such as running or their high-impact activity performed for too long at high intensity can overload the knees causing them to ache.

Shin splints flat feet people may benefit from orthotics since they help prevent the occurrence and recurrence of shin splints. Orthotics can be customized or purchased off the shelf. Always consult with a physiotherapist on exercises that may cause shin splints, how to avoid them and alternative strength exercises that stabilize the legs, ankles, hips, and core.

Bottom Line

Many people who have shin splints recover after taking time off. In case the problem doesn’t improve after trying rest and other methods above, be sure to see a doctor since some symptoms of shin splints could be a sign of an infection or another condition.


Releford Foot & Ankle Institute