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Shin splints

Key points

  • Shin splints is a term used to describe any pain along your shin bone (tibia).
  • It’s common to get shin splints if you play sports or do a lot of exercise, or have just begun a new fitness regime. It usually gets worse when you’re exercising.
  • The main symptoms of shin splints are pain along your front lower leg and tenderness.
  • Self-help treatments, such as using ice packs, taking painkillers and resting, can help relieve the pain and discomfort of shin splints.
  • Shin splints can be prevented by exercising on grass rather than hard surfaces, wearing proper sports trainers and using insoles to cushion your feet.
     

What happens if I go back to training before my shin splints are better?

You risk making your condition worse if you restart your training before you have fully recovered.

Resting is very important for the treatment of shin splints. This is so your bones have time to repair and heal fully. You risk injuring the bone or putting stress on other areas of your shin if you restart training before your shins are fully recovered.

See all our FAQs about shin splints

Shin splints is a general term used to describe pain along your shin bone (tibia) that usually develops or gets worse when you exercise. It's a common sporting injury, particularly if you’re a runner or dancer.

About shin splints

Your shin bone (tibia) is at the front of your lower leg. It’s the largest of the bones that run from your knee to your ankle.

Shin splints is a general term used to describe any condition that causes pain and tenderness down your shin. This pain may be down the middle of your shin or just inside the inner edge of your shin. The pain is caused by your muscles, tendons or bone tissue around your shin becoming injured.

Shin splints usually develop when you’re exercising. It can start if you’ve recently begun a new fitness regime or if you’ve been doing a lot of vigorous activity. Shin splints often get worse the longer you exercise. The condition usually develops in people who do repetitive activities and sports that put a lot of stress on the lower legs. For example, running, jumping or dancing.

Symptoms of shin splints

If you have shin splints, the main symptoms are tenderness and an aching pain along the front of your lower leg. The pain usually happens when you’re exercising and may become worse the longer you’re exercising. Some people find that the pain stops when they stop exercising, only to come back a few hours later. If your shin splints are severe, you may have pain when you’re resting. Sometimes you may also have mild swelling around the area that’s painful.

Causes of shin splints

There are a number of different causes of shin splints. The main ones are listed below.

  • Stress fractures. These are small breaks in your tibia, caused by stress on the bone. They can develop after repeated exercise; for example, running or dancing over a long period of time.
  • Medial tibial stress syndrome. The cause of medial tibial stress syndrome isn’t fully understood. When you’re exercising repeatedly you may feel pain at the middle to lower third of the inside of your tibia. It may also be swollen and tender.
  • Compartment syndrome. This happens when your muscles swell. Your muscles sit inside an enclosed compartment, so they don’t have much room to expand. When your muscles swell, the pressure increases and blood can’t flow into the muscle properly. This causes severe pain.
  • Biomechanical overload. This is where you have a tendency to overuse certain muscles in the front of your leg. This causes them to become tired and painful more quickly.

All of these conditions can develop when you put too much stress and strain on your shin bone. This happens when there’s repeated impact on the bone when you’re playing sports or doing activities where you’re running and jumping. It’s possible to have a stress fracture and compartment syndrome at the same time.

You're more at risk of developing shin splints if:

  • you’re running or playing sport often, for long sessions and at a high intensity
  • your sport or activity involves running or jumping on a hard surface
  • you have poor running technique, such as overstriding
  • you increase the amount of exercise you’re doing too quickly
  • your shoes don't fit well or don't have enough cushioning and support
  • you change your running pattern and the surface that you run on – for example, going from running on a treadmill to the road

Diagnosis of shin splints

If you have shin pain, see your GP or a physiotherapist (a health professional who specialises in maintaining and improving movement and mobility). You may also be referred to a doctor who specialises in sport and exercise medicine, but often, this is only available privately.

You’ll be asked about your symptoms and your doctor or physiotherapist will examine you. They may also ask you about your medical history. There’s usually a clear link between pain in your shin and a sport or activity that you do.

Your doctor or physiotherapist may recommend that you have a scan or X-ray to look at your shin in detail. These tests are often done to rule out other conditions that may affect your shins, such as large stress fractures. The tests you may have are listed below.

  • MRI scan. This uses magnets and radiowaves to produce images of your shin bone and surrounding soft tissues. Because MRI scans are the most accurate and don’t expose you to radiation, this is usually the test of choice.
  • An X-ray. This is a test that uses radiation to produce an image of the inside of your body.
  • CT scan. This uses X-rays to make a three-dimensional image of your shin bone. You’re exposed to more radiation than a simple X-ray when you have this test.
  • A bone scan. This looks for abnormalities or changes in your bones.

Treatment of shin splints

Self-help

There are many things that you can do yourself to treat shin splints. The main ones are listed below.

  • Stop doing the activity that caused your shin splints and rest for a few weeks. If you have stress fractures, these can take up to 12 weeks to heal properly.
  • If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  • Try cold ice packs to help relieve any pain. Wrap your ice pack in a towel – don’t apply it directly onto your skin. Hold it in place for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. You can repeat this several times a day if you need to.
  • Check your trainers or sports shoes to make sure they are giving your feet enough support and cushioning. Specialist running shops can give you advice and information about your trainers. Orthotic insoles for your shoes may also help to improve the way you run.
  • When you start exercising again, start slowly. If you get shin splints again, stop the activity and rest for a few days before starting the exercise at a lower level of intensity. Build up the amount of exercise you’re doing gradually.
  • Run on a soft surface such as grass, rather than on roads.
  • Changing your running style may help. Try taking quicker, smaller steps when you run.

Non-surgical treatment

Your physiotherapist can develop a training programme for you to gradually increase your level of activity and help you return to your usual sports. They may use a range of different treatments to help your recovery, including massage and stretching exercises.

Surgery

Most of the time, surgery isn’t required for shin splints. However, if your shin splints are caused by compartment syndrome and your pain is severe, your doctor may suggest an operation called a fasciotomy. This releases the pressure on the muscles in your lower leg.

Occasionally, a stress fracture may need an operation to help it heal.

Talk to your physiotherapist or a specialist for more information.

Prevention of shin splints

You can help reduce your risk of developing shin splints by doing the following.

  • Wear sports shoes or trainers that cushion and support your feet.
  • Wear cushioned insoles to absorb some of the impact when you’re running or playing sport.
  • Wear orthotic shoe inserts if your doctor or physiotherapist advises you to.
  • Train and exercise on grass if possible and not on hard surfaces such as roads or running tracks.

Reviewed by Alice Rossiter, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2014.

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For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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