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Shin Pain and Shin Splints: Overview

What are shin pain and shin splints?

Shin pain is experienced on the front of the lower leg, below the knee and above the ankle. It can hurt directly over the shinbone (tibia) or over the muscles that are on the inner or outer side of the tibia. Shin pain is often referred to as shin splints, but not all shin pain is necessarily caused by shin splints.

The pain may come from irritation of the muscles and the tissues that connect the muscles to bone, from a stress reaction/fracture or from increased pressure around the muscles in the lower leg. The following are different types of shin conditions.

  • Medial stress syndrome (“shin splints”): Occurs when the muscles that attach to the inner side of the shinbone are inflamed. A similar process can occur over the outer side of the leg.
  • Stress reaction/fracture: Inflammation in the bone and may be a precursor to a stress fracture. A stress fracture is a hairline crack in one of the lower leg bones, the tibia or fibula.
  • Compartment syndrome: The muscles in the lower leg are surrounded by connective tissue into compartments. When a certain compartment is overused, the muscles will become painful.

Who gets shin pain and shin splints?

The most common cause of all of these conditions in young athletes is being overactive. These shin conditions are most frequently seen in runners who increase their mileage or intensity of running, or change the surface on which they are running.

Other contributing factors include tight muscles in the lower leg and ankle, failure to warm-up properly before physical activity, improper shoe wear, cigarette smoking and use of certain medications.

How to prevent shin pain and shin splints

Keys to prevention include gradual return to activities/sports, proper shoe wear, proper stretching and warm-up before play, running on softer surfaces, recognizing symptoms and stopping activity if pain comes back.

Learn more about sports and common orthopedic injuries.

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