What Are Shin Splints?
Shin splints are when you have pain anywhere along your shin bone or tibia. Your tibia is the big bone that starts under your knee and runs down the front of your lower leg. The pain happens where your muscles attach to your shins. Shin splints are a common problem when you exercise a lot in ways that put stress on your lower legs.
If you have shin splints, your doctor also might call it medial tibial stress syndrome. That's another name for the painful inflammation you get when you overwork and stress the muscles, tendons, and bone in your shins.
Types of shin splints
Sometimes, you might see shin splints described as different types, such as anterior, medial, or posterior. These names relate to the different parts of your leg (front, middle, or back) and the muscles where you feel your pain. For example, you'll feel medial shin splints on the inner side of your shin, while anterior shin splints are on the outer side.
But shin splints aren't a specific injury with distinct types. It's a general name for pain along the front of your lower legs from overuse or stress. The most common place to feel pain in your shins is on the inner side.
Shin splints vs. stress fractures
Other conditions can make your shins hurt, too. If you have what you think are shin splints and they aren't getting better, check with your doctor to make sure you don't have a stress fracture in your tibia or some other condition.
While shin splints come with pain and inflammation, a stress fracture is a small crack in your bones. Both shin splints and stress fractures can happen when you put too much stress on the muscles, tendons, and bones in your lower legs. If you have shin splints and you don't rest, you could end up with a stress fracture.
Shin Splint Symptoms
Common symptoms of shin splints include:
- Dull pain or aching down the front of one or both of your shins
- Shins that hurt when you touch them
- Shin pain that gets worse when you exercise
- Pain in your shins that gets better with rest
- Mild swelling around your lower legs
What do shin splints feel like?
When you have shin splints, you might not feel them all the time. You might only feel it when you're running or exercising some other way that puts stress on your shins. As your shin splints get worse, you might start to feel the pain all the time.
Shin Splint Causes
You can get shin splints if you do the same exercises or motions many times in ways that put stress on the muscles, tendons, and bones around your shins. You could get them if you make sudden changes in your exercise routine, such as exercising harder, more often, or for a longer time. You might also get shin splints if you exercise with shoes that don't fit you well or are worn out.
Some forms of exercise are more likely to cause shin splints than others. Examples include:
- Military training
But any type of exercise that puts a lot of stress on your lower legs could cause shin splints.
Risk Factors for Shin Splints
Some people are more likely to get shin splints than others. Your choices about exercise can also put you at more risk for shin splints. Risk factors for shin splints include:
- Running, especially on uneven ground, uphill, or on hard surfaces like concrete
- Wearing shoes that don't fit well or lack support
- Having feet that are very flat or inflexible
- Being overweight
- Not warming up before exercise
- Not stretching after exercise
- Having a vitamin D deficiency
- Having an eating disorder
- Having bones that are weaker than they should be
The way your ankles and hips connect to your legs and how they move when you walk or run also can affect your risk for shin splints. If you exercise a lot and are worried about shin splints, ask your doctor about your risk and what you can do to lower it.
Shin Splint Treatment
Shin splints often get better without treatment within a few weeks. But there are steps you can take to heal faster.
- Rest your legs. You can still be active, but choose activities that won't make your shin splints worse, such as swimming or biking.
- Ice your shins. Use ice packs for 20-30 minutes several times a day for a few days or until the pain is gone.
- Use insoles or orthotics for your shoes. Shoe inserts—which can be custom-made or bought off the shelf—may help if you have flat feet or weak ankles.
- Try compression. Wearing a compression bandage or sock may help if you have swelling.
- Replace your shoes. If your shoes don't have enough support or are worn out, get a new pair that will cut down on stress to your shins. Ask your doctor or an expert in sports medicine how to find the best running shoes for shin splints.
- Take anti-inflammatory painkillers if you need them. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen, will help with pain and swelling. These drugs can have side effects, though, like a greater chance of bleeding and ulcers. Use them as directed on the label, unless your doctor says otherwise.
- Give it time. Don't go back to your normal exercise routine until you've been pain-free for 2 weeks or more. When you do start exercising again, start slow. Don't forget to warm up before each workout and stretch after. If the pain comes right back, stop what you're doing and rest.
Shin splint massage
Massage may help you relax the muscles around your shins. Try rubbing your calves, Achilles tendon, and other muscles in your legs gently or go to a massage therapist who knows about shin splints. But it's a good idea to check with your doctor first. There isn't much evidence that massage will make shin splints go away. If massage adds to stress on your muscles and tendons, it could even make them worse.
Shin splint stretches
Stretching your lower legs and ankles may help your shin splints feel better and heal. Ask your doctor if you should see a physical therapist for advice about stretches or other exercises. Once you feel better, stretching may help you stay well.
How long do shin splints last?
There's no way to say exactly when your shin splints will go away. It depends on what caused them. People also heal at different rates; 3-6 months isn't unusual. The most important thing is that you don't rush back into your sport. If you start to work out before your shin heals, you may hurt yourself more.
If you decide to see a doctor, expect them to give you a thorough exam of your lower legs. They may watch you run to look for problems. They might also take X-rays or bone scans to check if it's shin splits or a stress fracture. They'll also make sure you don't have tendinitis (inflammation in the tendons that connect your muscles to your bones) or another more serious issue.
Stretches for Shin Splints
It's important to give your shins time to rest. But you can try some exercises at home to gently stretch your calves, shins, and ankles. If you aren't sure or have questions, see a doctor or physical therapist for help.
Some stretching exercises to try include:
- Calf stretches. Try different ways to stretch your calves. One way is to sit on the floor with a towel around your toes and ball of your foot. Pull the towel with your leg straight. Another way to stretch your calves is to stand facing a wall with your injured leg back. Lean into the wall with your heel on the floor until you feel a stretch. Hold either stretch for 15-30 seconds three times.
- Shin stretches. Stand with a hand against the wall. Bend your knee and use your other hand to pull your foot until you feel a stretch along your shin. Hold for 15-30 seconds three times.
- Ankle stretches. To work your ankles, sit with your feet off the floor. Use your foot to write letters in the air by moving your ankle in all directions. You'll feel this on the top of your foot and all through your ankle. Another way to work your ankles is by looping an elastic band that's anchored to a chair or door around the top of your foot. While sitting down, pull your toes toward you and then relax. Repeat.
Other Exercises for Shin Splints
Other exercises you can do with a wall, chair, counter, or other items you may already have at home can help to strengthen your lower legs, hips, and ankles. These include:
- Heel raises. With your hands on the back of a chair or on a counter, lift your heels off the floor for 5 seconds. Repeat 15 times twice. As it gets easier, try it on one leg at a time.
- Standing toe raises. With you feet flat on the floor, rock back on your heels and lift your toes for 5 seconds. Repeat 15 times for two sets.
- Balance exercises. With a chair next to you, stand on your injured leg and bend your knee slightly. Reach in front of you and bend at your waist without moving your knee. Repeat 15 times for two sets.
- Reach exercises. With a chair next to you, bend your knee slightly. Reach your hand across your body toward the chair. Repeat 15 times for 2 sets.
- Resisted hip exercises. Put an elastic band that's anchored to a door around your ankle while standing. Pull the elastic out to one side with your leg straight. Repeat 15 times for 2 sets.
Four Signs Your Shin Splints Have Healed
You'll know your shins are fully healed when:
- Your injured leg is as flexible as your other leg.
- Your injured leg feels as strong as your other leg.
- You can push hard on spots that used to be painful.
- You can jog, sprint, and jump without pain.
How to Prevent Shin Splints
You can take steps to avoid shin splints before they happen or keep them from coming back. Tips include:
- Wear shoes that fit and support your foot well. If you aren't sure what you need, go to an athletic store with staff who can check your feet and help you find the right shoes.
- Get new shoes. If you run, make sure you get new shoes at least every 500 miles.
- Try arch supports or shock-absorbing insoles. These can give you more support and make shin splints less likely.
- Start slow. If you're new to an activity, start gently and give your body a chance to get used to the new movements.
- Cross train. For instance, instead of jogging every day, try adding in low-impact sports like swimming or biking.
- Build strength. Add exercises to strengthen your legs, ankles, hips, and core into your workout routine.
- Check your movement. See a physical therapist or personal trainer who can watch how you move and look for ways to lower your risk.