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When Are Shin Splints Serious?

Learn preventive steps, at home treatments, when to see doctor

Man knelt on ground grabbing with leg in pain from shin splints.

Learn preventive steps, at home treatments, when to see doctor

You might not expect people who are just starting an exercise program to have the same injuries as seasoned runners, but shin splints commonly affect both groups — along with dancers, soccer players and others who engage in high-impact activities. Shin splints cause pain along the inside of the shin bone (tibia) that can range from mild to severe.


While most shin splints are not serious, they can be quite painful and prevent you from doing the activities you enjoy.

What are shin splints?

“The medical term for shin splints is tibial stress syndrome. As the name suggests, shin splints result from excessive stress on the tibia, and is often associated with overuse injuries,” says Brian Rebolledo, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.


In most cases, shin splints are caused by repetitive activity that places stress on the covering of the shin bone, known as the periosteum. This can occur following sudden changes in physical activity or training regimens, and the body is unable to adjust to the abrupt changes.


In addition, having flat feet can contribute to shin splints, as well as worn-out footwear that does not provide adequate support during exercise.


Shin pain with activity is the most common symptom of shin splints; the pain may be sharp, dull or throb. Some people feel pain while exercising, while others feel it after a workout. You may also notice mild swelling, and the shin may be tender to touch.

What are home treatments for shin splints?

In most cases, you can treat shin splints with activity modifications or over-the-counter regimens that help relieve pain and let the injured tissues recover, including:

Rest

Take a break from the activities that seem to aggravate the condition, especially running or repetitive movement. Even walking may be painful, so opt for low-impact exercises that don’t put stress on the shins, such as swimming or cycling. At the gym, try a stationary bike or elliptical trainer.

Over-the-counter pain relievers

Try nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage pain and help reduce swelling. These include aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen.

Ice

Apply cold packs to the painful areas for 20 minutes at a time. Do not apply ice directly to the skin; use an ice pack or place a towel over your shin.

Stretching

Gentle stretching can help release tight muscles. Consult a physical therapist or exercise specialist for guidance on how to stretch correctly, as doing it incorrectly may make shin splints worse.


Shin splints usually improve with a week or two of rest and home treatment. It’s a good idea to wait until you are pain-free for two weeks before you return to running or other high-impact activities. Ease back into them and gradually increase the intensity or length of exercise. If you feel discomfort, stop the activity and resume the treatments above.

When to see your doctor

If you’re still feeling pain even after rest and at-home treatment, make an appointment with your doctor. “It’s important to check for other potential causes of shin pain, such as a stress fracture or even referred pain from another condition,” says Dr. Rebolledo. “Additional treatments, such as physical therapy or orthotics, can also be helpful to resolve the pain.”

Four tips to help you prevent shin splints

These four tips can help you prevent shin splints and keep you on your feet:

1. Choose the right shoe for your activity

The types of activities you do, how often you do them and where, and the shape of your foot all help determine which athletic shoes are best for you. Visit a shoe store that specializes in athletic footwear and ask for help finding the appropriate shoes. Make sure they fit well, provide support where you need it, and are comfortable.

2. Pace yourself

Gradually increase the duration or intensity of your activities to give your body a chance to adapt without injury. The same applies to starting new activities.

3. Cross train

Alternate high-impact activities with lower-impact swimming or cycling. Strength train to build up the muscles in your legs and do flexibility exercises to keep muscles from getting tight and stiff.

4. Take a break

Schedule rest days into your workout program to give your whole body a chance to rest and recover, which can help prevent injury.