Shin splints is not a specific injury itself, but a general term people often use to describe pain on the inside of the shin. Here we explain the common causes of shin splints type pain, as well as treatment and rehabilitation to ensure it doesn’t recur.
Shin splints symptoms
- The main symptom of ‘shin splints’ or medial tibial stress syndrome is pain on the lower inside of the shin.
- Symptoms usually develop gradually over time. You may have continued to train through the pain.
- Pain is often worse at the beginning of a training session but eases as the session progresses only to return again later in the session or the following day.
- When pressing in (palpating) along the inside of your shin, the area will feel painful and tender.
- In long term, chronic cases, you may feel lumps, and bumps along the inside of the tibia bone. This is because new bone grows in response to repeated trauma.
- Occasionally, you may see reddening of the skin over the inside of the leg due to acute inflammation.
It is important to get an accurate diagnosis so the right treatment can be applied. Other injuries which may also cause shin pain include Tibia stress fracture, Compartment syndromes & Popliteal artery entrapment.
What is shin splints?
Shin splints not a specific injury, but a term used to describe pain on the lower, inside of the shin. A number of specific injuries may cause ‘shin splints’ type pain, but medial tibial stress syndrome probably the most common.
Medial tibial stress syndrome occurs when the lower leg muscles repeatedly pull on the tibia (shin bone). The tibia is surrounded by a sheath called the periosteum. it is the periosteum surrounding the bone that becomes painful and inflamed. This is as a result of the traction forces repeatedly applied by the soft tissues (muscles and tendons).
The lumps and bumps sometimes felt along the inside of the lower shin in chronic cases are from new bone growth as the tibia attempts to repair itself.
What causes shin splints?
- Medial tibial stress syndrome is primarily an overuse injury.
- Overtraining, especially running or jumping without giving your body time to recover will result in repetitive strain and as a result, injury.
However, there are a number of factors which can increase the likelihood of developing chronic shin pain. These include:
Training errors – increasing running mileage too quickly, especially on hard surfaces can increase the risk of sustaining injury. Aim to increase no more than 10% mileage each week. Also, running on your toes such as in sprint training places additional stress on the lower leg.
Overpronation – occurs when the foot rolls inwards too much flattening the arch of the foot and causing the lower leg to rotate inwards. This, in turn, increases the stress on the soft tissues of the lower leg resulting in pain and inflammation.
Oversupination – is where the foot rolls outwards too much. If you think you have suspected biomechanical issues then a professional can do gait analysis tests either with a treadmill or using force plates to determine this and whether corrective orthotic inserts for your shoes are needed.
Footwear – inadequate footwear such as the wrong type of shoe for your running style or running shoes that are just too old and have lost their support and cushioning can cause injury. Overpronators may require a running shoe with a firmer midsole on the inside. Supinators usually require a neutral shoe with plenty of cushioning.
Flexibility – poor flexibility, in particular, tight calf muscles and tibialis posterior muscle, can cause increased stress on the soft tissues, muscles, and tendons of the lower leg when running.
Shin splints treatment
Treating shin splints involves reducing pain and inflammation, identifying and correcting training errors and biomechanical problems and restoring muscles to their original condition through stretching, exercises, and massage. The full rehabilitation process may take anywhere from 3 weeks to 12 weeks.
Self-help treatment for shin splints
- Apply the PRICE principles of protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation to reduce initial pain and inflammation.
- Apply a cold therapy and compression wrap for 10 minutes every hour initially for the first 24 to 48 hours, reducing frequency to 3 or 4 times a day as symptoms improve.
- Do not apply ice directly to the skin as it may burn. Either wrap ice in a wet tea towel or use a commercially available cold pack.
- Rest is important and often overlooked. This may mean reducing normal training volume and running on soft surfaces. More severe injuries will require complete rest for a few days and then replacing running and jumping type activities with non-weight bearing activities such as cycling or swimming
- Protect and support the area with a shin splint sleeve or compression support. This will help keep the muscles warm and supple as well as providing support to the inflamed tissues. Wearing shock-absorbing insoles in shoes will help reduce the stresses on the lower leg, or wear softer training shoes/sneakers all the time until symptoms have gone
- Stretching exercises for the calf muscles, in particular, should begin as soon as pain allows. Keep a training diary so you can look back and assess if the training load is too high.
Shin splints taping
A simple taping technique can often instantly relieve symptoms by supporting the muscles of the lower leg. Tape is applied in a spiral pattern up and around the shin. It works by pulling muscle towards the bone. This reduces traction forces on the shin and allowing the tissues to heal.
What can a professional do?
- A professional therapist can diagnose and identify possible causes of your shin pain. It is a common complaint that a patient will rest until their shin pain is gone, only for it to return once normal training resumes. This is often because the underlying causes are not addressed
- A full biomechanical assessment will identify any biomechanical problems such as over-pronation of the feet, which may increase the risk of injury
- A doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication e.g. ibuprofen to help reduce pain and inflammation. Although this should not be relied on as a long-term solution or excuse not to rest. Asthmatics should not take Ibuprofen.
Sports massage for shin splints
Sports massage & myofascial release may be beneficial after the first 3 days or so. Massage will reduce tension in the muscles which may be causing excessive traction forces on the bone, as well as increasing blood flow and therefore, aiding the healing process.
Techniques should initially be light, being careful to avoid the inflamed periosteum along the bone as this can make symptoms worse.
If all conservative treatment fails then surgery is an option, although this is rare.
Exercises for shin splints
Exercises to stretch the muscles of the lower leg, in particular, the tibialis posterior (which is often associated with shin pain) are important. Stretching exercises should be done both with the knee straight and bent to target both the gastrocnemius muscle and the deeper soleus muscle.
- Calf muscle stretching should be done with the leg both straight and bent.
- Straight leg stretches target the larger gastrocnemius muscle.
- Stretching with the knee bent isolates the deeper soleus muscle more.
- Hold for 20 seconds then relax and repeat 3 times.
- If you are particularly flexible then a more advanced stretch can be done on a step.
Strengthening exercises may also be required although being an overuse injury it is rest and stretching which should be the priority. A gradual return to full fitness is important.
When can I start training again?
- When walking has been pain-free for 2 weeks, you can begin running, but build up gradually.
- Apply tape to the shin to support it for the first few runs and ice afterward to prevent/reduce inflammation.
- Stretch properly before and after each training session.
Expert interview: Preventing shin splints
- Detmer DE. Chronic shin splints. Classification and management of medial tibial stress syndrome. Sports Med 1986;3(6):436-46
- Moen MH, Tol JL, Weir A et al. Medial tibial stress syndrome: a critical review. Sports Med 2009;39(7):523-46
- Tweed JL, Avil SJ, Campbell JA et al. Etiological factors in the development of medial tibial stress syndrome: a review of the literature, J Am Podiatr Med Assoc 2008;98(2):107-11
- Bennett JE, Reinking MF, Pluemer B et al. Factors contributing to the development of medial tibial stress syndrome in high school runners. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2001;31(9):504-10
- Griebert MC, Needle AR et al. Lower-leg Kinesio tape reduces the rate of loading in participants with medial tibial stress syndrome. Phys Ther Sport. 2016 Mar;18:62-67