Everything You Need to Know About Shin Splints

08 May, 2020
Shin splints are usually associated with runners. In general, it's not dangerous for your health, but it needs intervention to prevent complications.
 

Shin splints essentially cause pain in the leg. Generally, it’s associated with runners, because running can cause repetitive strain, which causes pain.

However, we don’t know the exact cause so far. There might be a series of factors that come together at the same time to cause pain, but it surely isn’t one single cause.

In addition to runners, other athletes suffer from it, especially in tennis or basketball. However, we don’t know if other sports are exempt since wearing the wrong footwear can also cause shin splints.

Of course, it’s mainly runners who get this condition. In fact, distance runners that run more than 15 miles are most susceptible. If you look at amateur runners, up to 40 percent of them suffer from this at some point.

Specific causes of shin splints

Although the ultimate cause of shin splints is unknown, we know some situations and contexts make it more likely. Similarly, there are underlying diseases that significantly increases the risk.

For example, a specific cause could be intermittent claudication. This is a disorder where the blood circulation in the leg is reduced due to arterial changes. It’s a condition that, added to the intense effort, could trigger shin splints.

A man walking with shin splints.
 

Thrombosis is also a specific cause. With thrombosis, a clot forms within the circulatory system. It prevents circulation and forms a clot that doesn’t let blood pass through. If there’s no blood, then there’s no oxygen, and the cells become fatigued.

Also, the nervous system plays a role. If someone has neuropathy or radiculopathy, there’s more risk of getting shin splints. The underlying mechanism is poor innervation of leg muscles.

Symptoms and diagnosis

The main symptom of shin splints is pain. Usually, it happens to the tibia, which is the largest bone in the leg, below the knee.

It’s usually about two inches long and the pain becomes worse when exercising. For example, this Science and Technology article explains it. When you touch this area, it hurts more, and this is one of the diagnostic tests.

However, for some people, the pain doesn’t start right away from exercise. In fact, they might start exercising as normal without any pain, until all of a sudden, they feel pain in the tibia. If you keep running, eventually you won’t be able to continue.

Your doctor might request an x-ray to accompany the diagnosis, but usually it won’t show any changes. In any case, your doctor might do it to rule out any stress fractures in the tibia.

In specialized sports medicine offices, they diagnose shin splints with a manometer. This device measures the pressure in your leg. With shin splints, pressure increases in the tibia after exercising. However, it’s not used very often in common practices.

 

Treating shin splints

The main treatment for shin splints is rest. Even without using other therapies, such as ice or anti-inflammatory drugs, rest works very well. In any case, if the pain is too intense, your doctor may tell you to take pain killers.

Shock wave treatments have been used in some runners, within the framework of physical therapy. However, this might be more of a rehabilitation process than a treatment itself.

Depending on the athlete’s physical condition, sometimes it’s not even necessary to completely stop sports. However, specialists recommend changing activity for a little while, or at least alternate. For example, runners can combine their passion with swimming.

A diagram highlighting shin splints.

Some severe cases of shin splints may require surgery. A complication of pain is the combination of compartment syndrome in the leg. These situations require a surgeon to decompress tight structures, but it’s not very common.

Final thoughts

Shin splints appear to happen due to overload. As in all sports, including runningit’s important to regulate your workouts and take care of your health.

Therefore, if you start experiencing leg pain that you can’t attribute to a specific cause, you should talk to a professional. That way, you’ll avoid other problems and complications.

 
  • Craig DI. Medial tibial stress syndrome: evidence based- prevention. J Athl Train. 2008;43(3):316–318.
  • Hidalgo, Luis Herraiz, et al. ¿De qué hablo cuando hablo de periostitis tibial? (2012).
  • Cafam-Colombia, Fundación Universitarias. Actualización sobre el síndrome de estrés tibial medial. (2015).