Understanding Shin Splints: From Causes, Treatment Options, and More

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 Stocksy/Design by Cristina Cianci

If you’ve ever had pain in the front of your lower legs during or after exercising, you know just how uncomfortable it can be. That pain is referred to as shin splints, and it tends to come on strongest when you’ve recently amped up or changed your fitness routine. Shin splints affect three million people annually in the U.S., impacting the lives of everyone from dancers to military recruits. So in order to cover exactly shin splints are, how to treat them if you have them, and how to prevent them so you can return to the workouts you enjoy most we've tapped two experts. Ahead, Dr. Briana Bain, PT, DPT and sports physician/nutritionist Dr. Philip Goglia share everything they know about shin splints.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Briana Bain is a physical therapist based out of Adler Therapy Group in Virginia Beach, VA.
  • Dr. Philip Goglia is a sports physician/nutritionist, as well as the CMO and co-founder of G- Plans.

What Are Shin Splints?

When muscles, bones, and tendons are worked heavily, it can create tiny tears in your tissues (aka micro-tears). More formally referred to as medial tibial stress syndrome, Dr. Bain explains that “shin splints or tibial stress syndrome (TSS) is caused by a repetitive overload of the muscles in the lower leg and calf, pulling on the tibia or shin bone in a manner that the tissues have not been previously trained for and are not accustomed to.” 

Initially, the pain of shin splints may only present while you’re exercising, and lessen or be gone completely afterward. You also may notice swelling in that part of your legs. But while this may be the case in the beginning, if you keep up the same types of activity that tend to trigger the pain, you may notice the uncomfortable sensation lasts long after you've finished exercising. If you ignore the pain of shin splints and continue to perform exercises that contribute to the issue, it could lead to a stress fracture. 

Common Causes Of Shin Splints

  1. Increased Activity: Dr. Bain says shin splints may occur “from activities that require repetitive muscle contraction for prolonged time, such as running.”
  2. A New Workout: Dr. Bain notes that shin splints may also “be caused by a sudden change in training type, such as transitioning to a different type of running shoe or to a different running surface (ex: dirt trail running to cement sidewalk).”
  3. Low Vitamin D and Calcium: Dr. Goglia suggests that “from the nutrition side, you should check your Vitamin D and calcium levels to make sure you are getting adequate sources in your diet. Foods rich in vitamin D include fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Egg yolks and fortified cereals are another option, but sometimes a supplement of Vitamin D is recommended.”

How To Prevent Shin Splints

Patience is the key to preventing shin splints. Says Dr. Bain, “The best way to prevent TSS is to be careful when beginning a new activity. Whenever you start a new activity, it is important to slowly build up your body's tolerance to this activity so that your tissues have time to adapt and are less likely to experience an overuse injury. This is also true for transitioning to a new type of running shoes or new running surface. It can be exciting to start a new exercise program, but it is important not to jump right in to doing a new activity every day. Start with once a week for a short amount of time or mileage, then slowly build up.”

How To Treat Shin Splints

If you’re dealing with shin splints, our experts have a few home remedies that ought to do the trick. But if your pain worsens or persists, you should absolutely see a physician. Only your physician can give an accurate shin splints diagnosis and prescribe the proper course of treatment.

Modify Your Exercise Routine

“The best way to address TSS initially is activity modification. The added stress or new activity which caused this injury needs to be reduced to allow the body time to heal and recover. Stick with other activities and forms of exercise that do not apply as much stress to those tissues for a couple weeks or until that pain isn't there. 

Ice the Area

Apply ice to the area two times a day for 15 minutes to help reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation. 

Re-Introduce the Activity Slowly

"Then begin slowly adding that activity back in a little at a time. I like to stick to the 10 percent rule: increase a specific activity no more than 10 percent each week until you are at a level you want," says Dr. Bain. "If you are still having pain or issues, I recommend seeing a physical therapist in your area for an individualized treatment plan. Your treatment plan will likely include exercises such as calf stretching, eccentric heel raises, etc.”

Consume an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Dr. Goglia suggests also altering your eating to facilitate healing. “Nutrition wise, the goal is to lower inflammation. This means including foods that help reduce inflammation such as foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like wild Alaskan salmon, walnuts, and chia seeds. Other great sources include berries, garlic, and dark leafy greens.” He notes that you should avoid inflammatory foods such as beans, bread, and refined sugars.

The Takeaway

If you’re experiencing pain in the lower front of your legs when exercising, you may have shin splints, also known as TSS. This is most likely to happen when you start a new exercise or increase the intensity of one you’re already doing. Shin splints tend to be associated most often with high impact exercises like running and dancing.

The pain of TSS is caused by micro-tears in your tissues, and it can be relieved with rest, ice, anti-inflammatory foods, and a temporary shift away from the problematic activity. It’s best to not return to the activity that caused shin splints until you’ve healed from them, and when you do return you should do so slowly and incrementally. While you have shin splints, anti-inflammatory medicine and foods can help, and inflammatory foods are better left off your plate. 

To avoid having to deal with shin splints in the first place, practice patience and care when beginning a new activity. Overdoing it and getting too involved too quickly is the most surefire way to get shin splints, so take your time and ease into your new exercise program or sport. When starting a new activity, make sure you’re getting a sufficient amount of vitamin D and calcium so that your bones are as strong as they can be.  

Shin splints are usually something you can diagnose and treat yourself, but it’s advisable that you see a doctor if the pain isn’t lessened when you’ve taken all of the suggested steps for healing them.

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