Shin Splints

Nothing threatens to derail a new training program faster than shin splints. If you’re increasing mileage, switching from trails to road or adding more high-intensity track workouts, you could be at risk. Women are also more likely to get shin splints than men. About three million people per year in the U.S. are afflicted with painful, burning shins. Many of those affected are runners, although the condition is also common among new military recruits and dancers. The good news is that shin splints generally clear up in few days to weeks with treatment.

Pain occurs along the inner edge of the tibia, where muscles attach to the bone. Illustration: Oliver Baker
Pain occurs along the inner edge of the tibia, where muscles attach to the bone. Illustration: Oliver Baker

Symptoms of Shin Splints

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons defines shin splints—officially called medial tibial stress syndrome—as “pain along the inner edge of the shinbone (tibia).”

Shins hurt during and after a run due to inflammation of tendons, muscles and bone tissue around your tibia. Pain occurs along the inner edge of the tibia, where muscles attach to the bone. Mild swelling may be present. The pain may be sharp, dull or throbbing. Shins may also be sore to the touch.

Causes of Shin Splints

Shin splints are caused by repeated stress and trauma to the muscle and bone tissue around the tibia. Recent studies indicate the trauma isn’t caused by the direct contact. Instead it happens from the slight bend that occurs during activity in a stress-loaded bone. As your tibia and muscles strengthen with repeated high-impact activity, the chance of shin splints lessens. This is why shin splints are more common in those just starting a running or training program. Other possible causes could include having flat feet or rigid arches, while others get this ailment from running in worn out or improper shoes.

Treatment for Shin Splints

Luckily, shin splints are one of the easier injuries to heal. Rest, ice and stretching are your best bets.

If overuse is the cause, resting is the first step towards recovery. Switch to lower impact activities such as swimming, pool running and cycling. If your case is on the mild side, you may continue to run, but with less mileage and intensity. Take it easy and make sure the pain is gone before returning to a normal training schedule.

If you can tolerate non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, taking ibuprofen and aspirin may help to reduce pain and swelling.

When icing, use cold packs for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day, until pain subsides. This usually takes two to three days.

Wearing an elastic compression bandage, compression socks or calf sleeves may help to alleviate discomfort and prevent additional swelling.

As long as it does not cause additional pain, adding flexibility and mobility exercises for your lower leg muscles may make your shins feel better. Strength training will help prevent re-injury as you return to running.

Finally, if you have flat feet or if shin splints are a recurring issue, visit a podiatrist, who may fit you for orthotics. These inserts could help to align and stabilize your foot, taking stress off your lower leg.

Preventing Shin Splints

Wearing the right shoes is crucial to preventing most injuries, especially shin splints. Make sure your running shoes fit properly and are the right type for your foot shape and running style. If you start logging long miles in old gym shoes or hiking boots, chances are your shins won’t be pleased. Get fitted at a specialty running store.

Work towards having good mobility and stability, not just throughout your legs, but in your entire body. Strong mobility means the entire kinetic chain can work together for maximum running efficiently. Warm up before a run with a few dynamic stretches. Be sure to roll out and stretch your legs once your workout is over.

Build miles and intensity gradually so that your body can adapt to the increased exercise load. Incorporating cross-training (swimming, cycling, pool running) is another way to increase endurance without overtaxing your body. Running on soft surfaces such as trails or grass will help reduce the impact on your lower legs as well.

Work on increasing leg turnover in your stride. The less time feet spend in contact with the ground, the less impact there is with every step. Studies show a lower incidence of injury in runners with around 180 steps per minute.

Finally, be smart about your training. If shin splints do not improve or worsen, schedule a visit with your doctor to investigate other possible causes or injuries. Left untreated, shin splints can turn into a stress fracture.

Other Common Running Injuries