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That pain in the front of your shins that crops up every time you decide to go for a run can be bothersome enough to have you consider skipping your next workout. Even if you warm up and stretch religiously, shin splints can set in––especially if you run on asphalt.
Shin splints are an exercise-induced shin injury that causes pain along the tibia, the frontmost bone of the two in your lower leg. Shin splints are a common injury in athletes, especially runners. In fact, about 1 in 5 runners report experiencing shin splints at some point (McClure, 2021).
But just because they’re common doesn’t mean shin splints aren’t extremely painful. The upside is that shin splints can be treated at home most of the time.
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What causes shin splints?
Let’s back up a bit and talk about the cause of shin splints in the first place.
Our lower legs have to put up with a lot of force, and every time you jump or run on a surface that doesn’t have a lot of “give” (like a trampoline or grass), your lower legs act as shock absorbers.
That “shock” can cause tiny injuries to the bones in your legs, which then heal and strengthen over time. Still, when a lot of damage is accumulated all at once without enough rest, that high-impact exercise can build up and cause inflammation in the connective tissue that surrounds the shin bone, too (McClure, 2021).
In general, the damage is widespread, so you may have tenderness along the entire length of your shin bone. Your healthcare provider may want to take some x-rays to make sure that you don’t have a stress fracture.
Stress fractures are similar to shin splints, but the treatment can be different. Usually, the pain of stress fractures is localized to one small area, while the pain of shin splints spans about 5 cm (about 2 inches) or more (McClure, 2021). And while shin splints will have you reducing your mileage, stress fractures require total rest from running altogether.
How to treat shin splints
The treatment for shin splints is pretty straightforward and mostly involves letting your body heal on its own.
If you have shin splints, it’s likely because you’re regularly participating in some kind of high-impact physical activity like running outdoors, gymnastics, or HIIT (high-intensity interval training). The first thing to do is to let your legs rest and heal. If you’re a runner, that doesn’t mean you can’t run anymore, but you may need to cut down on the amount of time you spend pounding the pavement or switch to a low-impact version by hopping on an elliptical machine instead of running outside.
If it’s gymnastics or HIIT that landed you in this predicament, switching to swimming or other low-impact activities for a bit and letting your shins heal will help.
PNF stretching benefits and techniques
- Stand facing a wall and place your hands on the wall in front of you.
- Step one leg slightly back and keep the other directly under your hips. Shift your weight to the back leg (the one being stretched) while keeping your toes pointed towards the wall. You should feel a good calf stretch, as well as stretching in the muscles along the shin bone.
- Hold for 15–30 seconds. Repeat on the other side if you have shin splints in both legs.
These stretches and others can also help prevent shin splints to begin with. Make sure to stretch thoroughly before and after every run.
How to prevent shin splints
A big part of preventing shin splints involves strengthening areas of the body. Here are a couple of tried and true techniques that may ward off any injuries down the road (Cortés González, 2020).
Work on your balance
Try balancing on the leg that has shin splints (or pick one to start with if both are afflicted). While keeping that leg straight, bend the other at the knee, so you’re standing (and balancing) on the one leg. Hold as long as you can until you stumble. Do three sets of eight.
Create tension or use a resistance band
If you have a resistance band handy, sit on a chair with one leg crossed over the other, ankle-to-knee. Loop one end of the band around your bottom foot, which should be flat on the floor. Loop the other end over the foot that’s crossed over your opposite knee. Using your ankle muscles, move the crossed foot up for one second and down for three. Do three sets of eight.
You can also try sitting with your back against a wall and the resistance band anchored to heavy, like a bedpost. Bend one knee and leave the other leg long (this should be the shin splint leg, if only one leg is affected). Loop one end of the band around the foot of your extended leg, and the other around the anchor. Flex your foot up for one second and then down for three. Do this for one minute.
6 benefits of stretching to make your body feel better
Get orthotic inserts for your shoes
Sneakers typically come with simple flat inserts, but replacing those inserts with more carefully-designed ones may help.
Researchers found that after 11 weeks of training, 34% fewer military recruits who used supportive orthotics had shin splints compared with those who had flat insoles (Bonanno, 2018). You can get orthotics at the drugstore or speak with a healthcare professional about getting custom ones.
Heavily padded running shoes with insoles that provide arch support can also help, especially if you have flat feet. Working out on softer surfaces, like grass instead of a sidewalk, can also prevent shin splints (Van Gent, 2007).
If you aren’t sure if you have shin splints or the injury doesn’t get better with rest, it might be time to see a healthcare provider. They may also recommend physical therapy, especially if you can’t take time off from what’s causing them.
- Bonanno, D. R., Murley, G. S., Munteanu, S. E., Landorf, K. B., & Menz, H. B. (2018). Effectiveness of foot orthoses for the prevention of lower limb overuse injuries in naval recruits: a randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(5), 298–302. Doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-098273. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29056595/
- Cortés González, R. E. (2020). Successful treatment of medial tibial stress syndrome in a collegiate athlete focusing on clinical findings and kinesiological factors contributing to pain. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. doi: 10.1080/09593985.2020.1802798. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09593985.2020.1802798
- McClure, C. J. & Oh, R. (2021). Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome. [Updated Aug 11, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538479/
- Van Gent, R. N., Siem, D., Van Middelkoop, M., Van Os, A. G., Bierma-Zeinstra, S. M., Koes, B. W., & Taunton, J. E. (2007). Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(8), 469-480. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2006.033548. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2465455/