What are shin splints?

Shin splints or medial tibial stress syndrome, refers to pain that generally runs along the front and medial aspect of the shin bone (tibia). This is generally an ache that is felt during exercise.

Shin splints are caused when the muscles in the back of the leg overpower the muscles in the front. Shin splints are most commonly found in runners.

A shin splint is pain along the inside part of the shin bone. The pain is caused by inflammation in the muscle in that area.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene on behalf of The Best Life
Physiology Specialist

Shin splints is the term used to describe pain along the shinbone, which is often caused by an inflammation of the muscle that surrounds the bone. It’s a common condition that often affects regular walkers and joggers.

The best way to prevent shin splints is to warm up for five to ten minutes and gently stretch prior to exercise. Two great stretches are the hamstring and lower calf stretch. For the hamstring stretch, lie on your back, keeping one leg bent and the corresponding foot on the floor. Keep your other leg straight and raise it up off the ground (you can use a towel around the foot to assist you) until you feel a gentle tension in the hamstring. Repeat on the other side. To perform the lower calf stretch, stand up and place one hand on your hip and the other on a chair for support. Place one foot ahead of the other (about two to three feet apart) and bend your knees. Bring your hips slowly down toward the floor, keeping both heels on the ground. You should feel a gentle tension in the lower calf of your back leg. Hold for five seconds and then relax for five seconds. Repeat this hold-and-relax cycle several times and then switch sides. Also, you should work on strengthening the muscles of the lower legs by doing heel raises; while standing, lift up onto your toes slowly before lowering your weight back down to the ground.

If you’re currently suffering from shin splits, reduce the pace and duration of your regular walks or runs for a while to allow the inflammation to subside. You can also speed up the recovery by applying ice directly to the sore area. Do this for about 20 minutes several times a day for a week or so. Finally, you can also try an anti-inflammatory medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. (Check with your physician before taking any medications.) Follow these steps and hopefully your next steps will be pain-free.

Shin splints are characterized by pain during activity and tenderness over the shin bone. Shin splints are caused by an overload to the tissues that connect the leg muscles to the shin bone and can arise from improper training methods and/or abnormal biomechanical (body and joint) alignment. Specific activities associated with shin splints include running downhill or on uneven surfaces and participating in repetitive, high impact activities. To avoid this painful condition, gradually increase the frequency and intensity of exercise to allow time for the body to adapt to the new stresses placed upon it. Cross-training (i.e., replacing a few weekly running sessions with cycling or swimming) is a great way to prevent this condition as it decreases the repetitive load placed on the muscles and allows recovery between periods of exercise. Incorporate flexibility (foam rolling and stretching the calves) and balance training (single-leg balance and single-leg balance with reach) into your daily routine to avoid muscle length imbalances and promote stability. Strengthen the ankle dorsiflexors by pulling the toes back against a resistance band or performing reverse calf raises. Make sure you use footwear that is appropriate for your activity and provides adequate support.

Shin splints is the common name for medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS). With MTSS, pain occurs along the inside portion of the lower leg. The pain is caused by the tibialis posterior muscle being overused and pulling away from the bone it attaches to, the tibia. As the lower leg undergoes repeated trauma from activities such as walking/running, the tibialis posterior muscle receives much stress. This eventually leads to pain from the muscle pulling on the tibia bone. This pain travels up the inner lower leg, eventually causing MTSS or shin splints.

This answer provided for NATA by the Eastern University Athletic Training Education Program.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.