Bone and Joint Health

A Painful Question: What Are Shin Splints?

You don't have to be a professional athlete to experience a sports-related injury. If you recently took up exercise and now find yourself hobbled by lower leg pain, you may be experiencing a condition called shin splints. Sounds painful, right? The more you know, the better you'll be able to recognize the injury and prevent it in the first place.

What Are Shin Splints?

The medical term for shin splints is medial tibial stress syndrome. The tibia is, of course, your shin bone. Shin splints occur when exercise causes microscopic tears in the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue. These tears result in painful inflammation. Medial tibial stress syndrome usually produces symptoms that include:

  • Pain in one or both lower legs, especially along the sides of the shin bones.
  • Sharp, stinging, or burning pain.
  • Pain that gets worse when you push on your shins with your fingers.
  • Lower leg pain that gets worse when you exercise and gets better when you rest.

Who Gets Shin Splints?

This annoying problem often plagues runners, but it can happen to anyone who exercises vigorously. Walking, running, aerobic workouts, dance, or any exercise that repeatedly stresses the lower legs can bring on medial tibial stress syndrome. It often strikes when you start a new exercise program, and people of all ages can experience the pain associated with this condition. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, you may be at higher risk for developing shin splints if you:

  • Have flat feet.
  • Exercise using worn-out shoes.
  • Suddenly increase your physical activity level.
  • Change the duration or intensity of your exercise.

How Can I Avoid Shin Splints?

If you have shin splints, you'll know it. Instead of asking "what are shin splints?," a better question might be "how can I prevent them?" The National Institutes of Health offers these tips for avoiding shin splints:

  • Increase exercise intensity slowly.
  • Wear proper footwear, and make sure it's in good condition to support your feet and legs.
  • Stretch and warm up before you exercise.
  • Avoid exercising on hard surfaces.
  • Apply ice to your shins after exercising.
  • Alternate between high-impact activities (such as running) and low-impact exercises (swimming, for example).
  • When you return to exercising after a bout of medical tibial stress syndrome, keep the intensity level low and slowly work up to higher-intensity activities.

Can I Treat Shin Splints at Home?

If you develop sharp, stinging, or burning pain along the shin bone after working out, you can try treating the pain at home. Shin splint inflammation can take several weeks to clear up with self-treatment, however. If the pain persists, you should see your doctor to rule out another cause of your pain.

To treat medial tibial stress syndrome at home:

  • Stop exercising for two to four weeks.
  • Try low-impact fitness activities such as swimming or biking, but be sure to stop if you experience more pain.
  • Take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, such as naproxen, ibuprofen, or aspirin.
  • Ice your shins several times a day.
  • Talk to your doctor about getting a gait analysis to see if you need orthotic inserts to stabilize your feet when you exercise.

When to See a Doctor About Lower Leg Pain

Occasionally, the pain typically associated with shin splints is caused by something else. Stress fractures, tendinitis, and other conditions can also cause lower leg pain during exercise. You should make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • Your leg pain continues for more than six weeks.
  • Your lower legs swell up.
  • The skin of your lower leg looks red and feels hot to the touch.

Most cases of shin splints clear up with home treatment and never need medical intervention. While you wait for your lower leg pain to get better, stay fit with low-impact exercise that doesn't aggravate your shins. When it comes down to it, dealing with shin splints is all about listening to your body and knowing when to take a break. It's not worth fighting through the pain!

Posted in Bone and Joint Health

Elizabeth Hanes, RN, BSN, taps her broad journalistic background to craft health and wellness content that inspires, engages, and entertains readers. Her byline has appeared in print and online publications ranging from AntiqueWeek to PBS' Next Avenue. An expert in elderly care issues, Elizabeth won an Online Journalism Award in 2010 in the Online Commentary/Blogging category for "Dad Has Dementia," a piece based on her experience caring for her father. In addition to her bachelor’s of science in nursing, Elizabeth holds a BA in creative writing.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.