What are Shin Splints? The Symptoms & Treatment Options

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 21, 2022
Contributed by Jamie Page
Physiotherapist, Salford University

Man stopped whist running because of shin splints pain in his left leg.

Shin splints occur in up to 35% of active individuals[1] who regularly participate in running and jumping activities (e.g. Australian Rules Football (AFL), long-distance running). Women are twice as likely to develop this condition compared to male counterparts.[1]

Shin splints are common in athletes, particularly in those preparing for a specific event or competition. Sudden spikes in training volume or intensity are major causes of this condition. Other risk factors include being overweight, foot overpronation (flat feet), stiff ankles and hips.

What are Shin Splints?

Shin splints [medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS)] is a term used to describe inflammation of the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around your tibia (shin bone). Pain typically occurs along the inner border of the tibia where the muscles of the lower leg attach to the bone.

What are the symptoms of shin splints?

Shin splints is a term describing pain along the shin bone, anywhere from the knee to the ankle. Patients commonly describe the pain as a dull ache, or a throbbing pain. People may also experience swelling along the shin bone and some redness or heat in the area.

Common symptoms of shin splints

  • Sharp or throbbing pain on the leg

  • Swelling

  • A dull ache in the front of the lower leg

  • Pain with weightbearing

  • Tenderness

What causes shin splints ?

Shin splints are caused by an overuse of the muscles at the front of the lower leg (shin). This is usually a result of a sudden increase in activity, like running or sports such as tennis. The increased activity puts stress on the muscles of the shin, causing pain and inflammation.

Common causes of shin splints

  • Lack of proper exercise progression

  • Sudden change in your exercise routine

  • Uphill running

  • Improper footwear

  • Continuing exercise activity even in pain

Sports that increase the risk of shin splints

Sporting activities that put stress on your leg muscles can increase your risk of having shin splints. Moreover, sports that require sudden stop-start movements and bursts of speed can damage the soft tissues of the leg. Here is a list of the most common sports that can result in shin splints:

  • Sprinting

  • Tennis

  • Basketball

  • Soccer

  • Football

  • Netball

  • Long-distance running.

How are shin splints diagnosed?

Medial tibial stress syndrome (shin splints) can be painful and disrupt your exercise routine. Moreover, chronic stress and inflammation of your shin bone can potentially lead to much worse injuries like stress fractures if left undiagnosed.

There are several options available when it comes to diagnosing your leg pain as shin splints. One of the more common and most recommended by Australian GPs is an assessment from a physiotherapist.

Physiotherapists are medical professionals that deal with all types of sports injuries. They are in the best position to diagnose muscle and bone injuries such as shin splints.

The assessment of your condition will start with a mini-interview with your physiotherapist. Your physiotherapist will ask for details about your condition and medical history. Take this time to discuss all of your symptoms and how you got your injury.

After establishing a background of your condition, your physiotherapist will perform a physical assessment and movement screens of your leg muscle to identify factors that are causing your pain.

Your physiotherapist will then create a specific treatment plan for you and will guide you through your recovery.

This will also include:

  • Treatment program specific to your needs

  • Treatment goals and recovery time

  • Home exercise programs and guides to manage the pain

  • Expert advice to help you gradually return to your normal activities

How are shin splints treated?

Shin splints can be debilitating and prevent you from participating in sports. Pain may alleviate with rest, but it will eventually become chronic unless you address the root cause of your symptoms.

There are several options when it comes to treating shin splints. One of the more common and the treatment option referred to by Australian GPs most frequently is physiotherapy.

Shin splints are a common injury that physiotherapists routinely handle in the clinic. They are highly qualified to provide quality care and help you maximise your recovery.

Through physiotherapy, you can prevent your shin splints from occurring and progressing to stress fractures.

Your treatment will focus on decreasing signs of inflammation, improving the strength of your leg muscles and correcting any faults that may be causing your shin splints, like your running technique and exercise routine.

Depending on the severity of your shin splints, a physiotherapist may provide you with a combination of the following types of treatments:

  • Soft Tissue Mobilisation - includes hands-on techniques used to promote muscle relaxation and improve pain.

  • Advice and Education - It is important to know how much exercise is appropriate during recovery, and how to progress safely.

  • Dry Needling - Specialised needling techniques used to decrease pain and reduce inflammation.

  • Kinesio Taping - Specialised taping techniques to help to take load off your calf and decrease pain.

  • Therapeutic Exercises - Low-impact corrective exercises to regain the strength of your leg muscles and address any impairments.

  • Stretching Exercises - Gentle stretching exercises to help relieve muscle tension and maintain range of motion while recovering.

  • Ultrasound Treatment - Ultrasound waves stimulate deeper structures of your muscles, potentially reducing inflammation and pain.

  • Proprioceptive and Balance Training - In later stages of recovery, proprioceptive exercises can help train your body to react properly to uneven surfaces when running.

  • Plyometric Exercises - Used during the later stage of your recovery to prepare your body for high-impact activities and ensure a safe return to sports or workouts.

A typical physiotherapy session with your local physiotherapist will last anywhere between 30-60 minutes. It is not uncommon for patients to feel the benefits in just one session.

Next step - Creating a treatment plan made for you

After your evaluation, your physiotherapist will formulate a detailed treatment plan based on your lifestyle to maximise your recovery.

Self-care for shin splints

If you think you have shin splints, here are the best things you can do and avoid.

Things to do:

  • Rest

Shin splints is an overuse injury that requires appropriate rest to allow your body to heal and recover.

  • Ice

Use cold packs for at least 15 minutes every 3 to 4 hours to control the swelling and help you manage the pain.

  • Get assessed by a podiatrist

If you have ongoing issues with your feet, or lower legs, you may need orthotics to assist in correct foot biomechanics. Speak to your physio about whether this applies to you.

  • Compress

Apply a compression bandage to help you manage the swelling.

Things to avoid:

  • Avoid high-intensity activities

High-impact activities such as uphill running and jumping should be avoided for a few days to give time for your body to heal.

  • Avoid wearing high heels

In the short term, try and avoid excessively high heeled footwear. They can place a great amount of stress on your lower body muscles and joints.

Do I need a specialist or surgery?

Diagnosing shin splints largely depends on the symptoms and presentation of the patient. However, diagnostic imaging like X-rays may be required to check for stress fractures of the shin bone.

In severe cases, your doctor may also prescribe pain relievers and steroid injections to help you control inflammation and pain.

Surgery is rarely done in the case of shin splints. Instead, your recovery will rely on rest and your rehabilitation program with your local physio.

What is the recovery time / prognosis for shin splints?

Ultimately, recovery time is dependent on your proactiveness to seek professional treatment and the severity of your pain and injury.

Full recovery from shin splints can take up to 3 to 6 months. However, pain will begin to subside within the first 2 to 4 weeks of your recovery.

Important factors in recovery include:

  • Sticking to your rehabilitation program and regularly exercising

  • Resuming your sports activity gradually

  • Paying attention to pain, and resting as necessary.

Can shin splints be prevented?

Guaranteeing prevention can be impossible; however, you can decrease the risk of shin splints through some of these techniques:

  • Stretch regularly - Stretching your leg muscles can help decrease the tension in your muscles.

  • Core and lower body strengthening - Strengthening key muscles of your core and legs can help prevent injuries and allow your body to overcome the demand you are putting on it.

  • Wear proper athletic shoes - Athletic shoes that support your foot arch and have a fitting cushion are effective in reducing the stress on your joints and allow efficient running mechanics.

  • Proper exercise progression - Gradually build your fitness level. Slowly increase your exercise duration or intensity to prevent excessive stress on your body

Outlook and the main takeaways

Exercise and sports are vital for your physical health. Improper progression of your activities can also cause tremendous stress to your body. It is essential to be aware of signs of fatigue or pain when exercising.

Book a consultation with a physiotherapist today to help you recover fast from a shin splint and correct your running mechanics to prevent future injuries.

Anatomy of the shin

Your shin or tibia is the main bone of the lower leg and receives most of the weight between your knee and ankle.

The tibia provides stability on the lower body and is essential for propelling your legs during walking, running or climbing.

Different muscles which control the movement of your ankle and foot are found around your tibia.

Inflammation of the muscles that are attached to your shin bone can result in shin splints.

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on March 21, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 21, 2022
Contributed by Jamie Page
Physiotherapist, Salford University
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on March 21, 2022
BookPhysio.com has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.
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