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Shin Splints

By Thomas Connolly, M.D.

Young ballerina smiling at camera

Whether you are a competitive athlete or a just-for-fun 5k fanatic, shin splints are never a welcomed condition. This overuse injury is usually self-treatable; so it’s beneficial to know the symptoms and treatment tactics to put a stop to shin splints before they lead to further complications.

What are the symptoms of shin splints?

When one has shin splints, he or she will notice pain along the inner lower leg where the muscles connect to the shin bone (tibia). Pain can be either sharp and stabbing or dull and throbbing, and it can occur during or after physical activity. There may also be mild swelling in the area of the pain.

What causes shin splints?

Shin splints are caused by overworking the muscles, tendons and bone tissue near the shin bone. A number of factors can put a person at risk for developing shin splints. You may be at risk if you:

  • Have suddenly increased the intensity or length of your exercise regimen
  • Play a sport on a hard surface, especially if the sport calls for sudden starts and stops
  • Run on uneven ground
  • Wear improper or worn-out shoes
  • Have flat feet or high arches

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, runners and dancers are considered high-risk groups when it comes to developing shin splints.

How do doctors test for shin splints?

Your physician will conduct a basic physical exam and look at your medical history to assess if shin splints are likely the cause of your pain.

Diagnostic imaging may be necessary if tests are inconclusive or if pain does not subside to rule out a stress fracture.

What is the treatment for shin splints?

Shin splints are best treated by allowing your body time to recover. Patients can do this by:

  • Resting the body. Reduce exercise to low-impact options, such as biking or swimming.
  • Icing the area to bring down swelling. Four to eight times a day, ice the affected area for 15-20 minutes. For protection, do not apply ice directly to skin; place a cloth or paper towel between the ice and your shin.
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers. Like icing, this will help reduce the swelling around the shin bone.
  • Easing in to exercise. Before restarting high-impact exercise, you should be pain-free for two weeks. Don’t jump right into your previous exercise routine, but gradually increase, resting your body for another one to two days if you start to feel pain again.

Cross-training (switching between both high- and low-impact exercises) is helpful in preventing the onset or re-emergence of shin splints.