Do I Have Shin Splints?

Q: When I run, I get this intense pain in the front of my legs. What is causing this?

A: You are probably experiencing shin splints, which is a condition that causes pain in the front part of the lower leg (below the knee along the shinbone or tibia). Pain usually occurs during or after exercise such as running or other sports.

The pain is caused by repeated stress on the tibia and the tissue that connects the muscle to the tibia. Most often shin splints occur after increasing mileage or speed too quickly or wearing worn out or inappropriate shoes. Make sure you are wearing shoes with adequate cushioning. Some people also benefit from insoles or certain types of running shoes that help their feet to land correctly if they tend to roll their feet in or out too much. Many running shoe stores have experienced staff that can help determine the appropriate shoes for a person by watching them walk or run.

In many cases, home treatment can help relieve pain from shin splints.

Rest is the best treatment for shin splints. You may continue running at a lower mileage while you heal or you may need to stop running until your symptoms improve. If you are unable to run, you can continue to stay active by swimming or biking until the shin pain improves. If you continue running, it may feel better to run on softer surfaces such as grass or packed dirt trails but avoid uneven ground and hills.

Use ice to help reduce pain and inflammation. Apply an ice pack to the sore area of the leg for 10-15 minutes at a time 3-4 times each day. If you do not have an ice pack, a bag of frozen vegetables works just as well. Wrap the ice in a thin towel to avoid skin irritation. Elevating your legs on pillows while you apply ice or any time you are sitting may also help. Try to keep your lower legs at or above the level of your heart. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be used as needed for discomfort. Please follow the package instructions. It is not recommended to use pain relievers prior to exercising.

Stretching and strengthening exercises may also help to improve pain and prevent shin splints from returning.

If your pain is not improving with 1-2 weeks of reduced activity or you have one specific point over the lower leg bone that is very sore to the touch you should see a physician as there may be another cause for the pain such as a stress fracture.

Once you are feeling better gradually get back into running. Start with shorter runs or a combination of running and walking. Gradually increase the length of your runs. Do not increase speed and distance in the same week. It is usually recommended to increase mileage by about 10 percent per week until you are back to your goal mileage.

By Jennifer Steinhoff, MD, ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca.