If you’ve ever gone running and felt an intense pain along your shin bone, you may have experienced medial tibial stress syndrome — more commonly known as shin splints. The condition refers to pain that runs down the tibia or shinbone — the thicker bone on the inside front of your lower leg.
Shin splints are a common overuse injury for runners, especially those who stepped up or changed their training routine. Studies estimate 13% to 20% of runners have reported having shin splints.
Colleen Law, DPM, a podiatrist specializing in foot and ankle care at UPMC, is a former collegiate runner for Lehigh University. She has seen many cases of shin splints both in her competitive running days and in her practice.
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Shin Splint Symptoms
“Shin splints occur because of repetitive stress placed on the shinbone from the connective tissues that attach the muscles of the lower leg to the bone,” says Dr. Law. “Pain down the front of the shin bone is the main symptom of shin splints during or after activity.”
Shin splints often cause tenderness or soreness along the front of your shinbone and may also cause swelling. The pain may lessen after you warm up on a run or show up after a run. If the pain becomes continuous, you may have to stop running and rest your legs. If the pain does not go away or gets worse, you may need to see a doctor to rule out a stress fracture.
Shin Splint Risks
Certain factors put runners at a higher risk of getting shin splints. They include:
Wearing old or unsupportive running shoes
The first and easiest fix for shin splints is to take a look at your shoes. Running shoes last on average about 300 to 400 miles. If you’ve logged more miles than that, it’s time to switch to a new pair. Look for a good fit that gives your feet support and shock absorption. Avoid training in lightweight sneakers or spikes.
Starting a running program for the first time
People who start a running program for the first time are at risk of shin splints. It takes about six weeks to get your body ready for running, especially if you’re overweight or out of shape. Start by walking at a brisk pace. Gradually work up to a walk/jog, then go up to a jogging pace. Allow a rest day once or twice a week. Once you’ve mastered the walk/jog, use the next six weeks to add longer periods of jogging without walking, increase to jogging, then try slow running without breaks.
Upping your mileage too soon
Even established runners who increase the length and intensity of their runs are at risk for shin splints if not done properly. As a general rule, Dr. Law recommends that runners not increase their total weekly mileage more than 10% week to week. In addition, your long run of the week should be no more than 20% of your total weekly mileage.
Running on uneven terrain and/or hard surfaces, such as concrete or asphalt
Try to vary the surface on which you run, particularly if you run mostly on hard surfaces. Switch to softer surfaces, such as a track, grass, crushed gravel, or a dirt trail to give your legs a break. And don’t forget to change direction if you run on a track to prevent one leg from bearing more stress than the other.
Here are a few ways to treat shin splints at home:
- Rest your legs between runs. Take a day off from running once or twice a week or cross-train on those days
- Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen, can help ease the pain of shin splints.
- Ice your shins. Apply an icepack for 15 minutes after activity. To give yourself an ice massage, Dr. Law recommends freezing small paper cups with water and rubbing the ice up and down your shins for 15 minutes.
When to Call Your Doctor
If rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain relievers don’t ease your shin pain within two to three weeks — or if the pain becomes constant or severe — talk to your doctor.
Tips to Prevent Shin Splints
Rest between runs
Whether you’re training for a marathon or just running to stay fit, Dr. Law recommends that you include rest days in your routine. If you don’t want to completely rest between runs, try cross-training with biking, pool running, or the elliptical between your run days.
Add strength training to your routine
Since running is a repetitive motion, light weightlifting or circuit training to build other muscle groups can help prevent overuse injuries. Heel raises, calf stretches, and leg lifts using low weights and high repetitions are particularly helpful. Exercises to strengthen and stabilize your hips and core muscles can help prepare your body to deal with the high impact of running. Start new activities slowly and gradually increase length of time and intensity.
Take time to stretch
Start with a 10-minute warm-up jog followed by light stretching. Ease into each stretch without bouncing or try dynamic stretching. After your run, hold each stretch for about 30 seconds and repeat once or twice on each leg.
Try some accessories
Runners prone to shin splints may want to invest in things that can help prevent pain. A few to look into include:
- Arch supports, shoe inserts, or custom orthotics.
- Kinesiology tape.
- Compression socks.
- Foam roller.
The key to preventing shin splints and other overuse injuries is to increase in your workout level, duration, and intensity gradually over time. Respect and respond to pain — it’s your body’s signal that you’re overdoing it.
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