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Shin splints: causes, prevention and treatments

Laura Harcourt

Written byLaura Harcourt

rej_bhumbra_11

Reviewed byRej Bhumbra

Male and female running along ocean pier with happy expressions

Summary

1What are shin splints?

Sometimes referred to as tibial stress syndrome, shin splints happen when your shin bone (tibia) and the surrounding muscles become overloaded...

2What causes shin splints?

Your shin bone and the surrounding tissue are designed to cope with a certain amount of impact. In fact, exercising can actually cause...

3How to stop getting shin splints

You can prevent yourself from getting shin splints and stress fractures by starting a new exercise regime slowly. You can do this by gradually build..

If you ever experience muscular pain in your shins, it could be what’s known as a shin splint.1 

A term used to describe any pain in the shin bone or front of the lower legs,1 shin splints are common in people who do a lot of running or other activities that involve repeated loading of the legs. This might include things like brisk walking, jogging or playing dynamic sports.1

The good news is that shin splints aren’t usually serious and can be easily treated with the right help. That said, if you continue to ignore them, the pain may well get worse.1

In this article, we’ve compiled all the relevant information you need to know about shin splints – from what they are and how they’re caused, to preventative actions you can take.

What are shin splints?

Sometimes referred to as tibial stress syndrome, shin splints happen when your shin bone (tibia) and the surrounding muscles become overloaded.1–3
Shin splints are commonly associated with exercise and are often seen in runners or athletes.4 This is because the stress placed on the lower leg during exercise causes a sharp, dull or throbbing sensation that is tender to touch.2,3,5 Usually this sensation can occur along the front of your leg.1,5 

 Shin splints usually get better within a few weeks, as long as you stop exercising the lower leg as soon as you start to feel pain in the area.5 

If you ignore the pain and continue exercising the lower leg, shin splints tend to develop and increase over a few weeks and may even result in a stress fracture.1,6

Symptoms of shin splints

It can be easy to confuse shin splints with other exercise-related issues like a runner's knee or calf muscle strain. If you’re experiencing pain at the front, around or behind the knee, or feel like you’ve been kicked in the back of your calf, you may be experiencing one of these muscular issues instead.7
Some of the most common symptoms associated with shin splints involve pain, which can occur in the following areas:1-3,5,8 
  • one or both of your shins 
  • your calf muscle 
  • 5cm across the shin (pain in a small local area may be caused by a stress fracture) 
You may also notice the pain in various ways. Pain may:1-3,5,8 
  • start after exercising 
  • be dull and achy at first 
  • cause the area to be tender to the touch 
  • become increasingly sharp or severe and prevent you from exercising 
  • improve with rest 
  • initially fade when exercising but over time become more constant both while exercising and resting
If the pain you experience from a shin splint becomes severe and doesn’t seem to be healing on its own, you should speak to your GP or a trained physiotherapist.5

What causes shin splints?

Your shin bone and the surrounding tissue are designed to cope with a certain amount of impact. In fact, exercising can actually cause what are known as ‘microtraumas’, which can help build and strengthen the shin bone.4
However, having repeated stress on the shin bone, the tissue around the shin bone and the thin membrane that covers the bone can cause the tissue to become inflamed. This can then lead to pain in your shin and the onset of – you guessed it – a shin splint.1,4 

But, you may be wondering, if the area is meant to be able to handle stress, why does a certain amount of stress suddenly cause a shin splint to occur? Well, there are a number of reasons that this may occur. For example, shin splints can be caused by:1,4 
  • having a higher BMI
  • a sudden change in your activity level (for instance, if you have recently started running) 
  • running on hard or uneven surfaces, such as roads or pavements 
  • poorly fitting or unsupportive footwear 
  • insufficient rest time between exercising 
  • having tight muscles below the knee and around the ankle, leading to muscle strain

How to stop getting shin splints

You can prevent yourself from getting shin splints and stress fractures by starting a new exercise regime slowly. You can do this by gradually building up the intensity while also stretching between sessions and prioritising plenty of recovery time.1,4,5
Some other effective methods you can try to avoid getting shin splints include:
  • wear sports shoes or trainers that cushion and support your feet properly 
  • look to replace your running shoes when you feel they are less able to absorb the impact from running
  • avoid doing too much too quickly if you are starting a new activity
  • consider wearing cushioned insoles to absorb some of the impact when you’re running or playing sport
  • train and exercise on soft, flat surfaces, such as grass, and avoid training on hard surfaces, such as roads or pavements
  • do some ankle and other stretching exercises for the front of your calves and hamstrings before and after you do any physical activities or sports

Healing shin splints quickly

Shins splints can usually be treated at home with a good, recommended dose of rest.5 Painkillers can be taken to help ease the pain, and you should usually see improvements within a few weeks.
According to the NHS, you can also follow these six steps to try and speed up your shin splint’s healing time:
  1. use painkillers: taking ibuprofen or paracetamol can help ease the pain while you allow yourself time to recover
  2. use an ice pack: apply an ice pack or bag of frozen veg wrapped in a towel to your shin for 20 minutes once every two to three hours 
  3. ease yourself back into your exercise routine: when you start to feel better, try exercising on soft ground to take the pressure off your legs. Avoid intense exercise and, instead, try activities like yoga or swimming while your body recovers 
  4. warm-up and cool down: make sure to give yourself enough time to warm up properly before exercising and cool down again after you’ve finished with some stretches 
  5. use the right shoes or trainers: it’s important to think about your feet while exercising, so try to make sure you use footwear that will support your feet

The final say

Shin splints occur in the bottom of the leg, known as the tibia, and its surrounding tissues.1,2 

While this area can take some impact and even be strengthened by exercising, intense pressure can lead to inflammation and, in some cases, severe pain.

If you ever experience a shin splint, it’s important to give yourself enough time to recover properly, by either prioritising lighter exercises or focusing on your upper body instead.5 

You can also support your recovery with our range of supplements which are specifically designed to support your muscles and joints. 

However, if your pain continues or impacts your ability to perform day-to-day activities, you should contact your GP as you could have a stress fracture.

Disclaimer

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Consult a healthcare professional before making any health-related decisions.
 

Sources

  1. Tyneside Integrated Musculoskeletal Service - NHS. Information for Patients Shin Splints Injury [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Mar 9]. Available from: https://www.tims.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/6.17-TIMS-Shin-Splints.pdf
  2. NHS Lothian. Tibial Stress Syndrome (Shin Splints) [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Mar 9]. Available from: https://apps.nhslothian.scot/refhelp/guidelines/podiatry/msk-podiatry/tibial-stress-syndrome-shin-splints/ 
  3. Sussex MSK Partnership. Shin splints [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Mar 9]. Available from: https://www.sussexmskpartnershipcentral.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Shin-Splints.pdf 
  4. Winkelmann, ZK., et al. ‘Risk Factors for Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome in Active Individuals: An Evidence-Based Review.’ Journal of Athletic Training. 2016;51(12):1049–52. Available from: https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-51.12.13. 
  5. NHS Choices. Shin splints [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Mar 9]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/shin-splints/.
  6. Oxford University Hospitals – NHS. Department of Sport and Exercise Medicine Bone Stress Injuries and Stress Fractures Information for patients [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Mar 9]. Available from: https://www.ouh.nhs.uk/patient-guide/leaflets/files/41517Pfractures.pdf. 
  7. NHS Choices. Knee pain and other running injuries - Exercise [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Mar 9]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/knee-pain-and-other-running-injuries/. 
  8. Bhusari, N,. et al. Shin Splint: A Review. Cureus. 2023;15 (1). Available from: https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.3390 
  9. Cornwall, MW., et al. ‘Can runners perceive changes in heel cushioning as the shoe ages with increased mileage?’ International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2017;12(4):616–24. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5534152/.
 

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