The term "shin splints" refers to pain along the shinbone (tibia) — the large bone in the front of your lower leg. Shin splints are common in runners, dancers and military recruits.

Medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints often occur in athletes who have recently intensified or changed their training routines. The muscles, tendons and bone tissue become overworked by the increased activity.

Most cases of shin splints can be treated with rest, ice and other self-care measures. Wearing proper footwear and modifying your exercise routine can help prevent shin splints from recurring.

If you have shin splints, you may notice:

  • Tenderness, soreness or pain along the inner part of your lower leg
  • Mild swelling in your lower leg

At first, the pain may stop when you stop running or exercising. Eventually, however, the pain may be continuous.

When to see a doctor

Consult your doctor if rest, ice and over-the-counter pain relievers don't ease your shin pain.

Shin splints are caused by repetitive stress on the shinbone and the connective tissues that attach your muscles to the bone.

You're more at risk of shin splints if:

  • You're a runner, especially just beginning a running program
  • You play sports on hard surfaces, with sudden stops and starts
  • You run on uneven terrain, such as hills
  • You're in military training
  • You have flat feet or high arches

Shin splints are usually diagnosed based on your medical history and a physical exam. In some cases, an X-ray or other imaging studies can help identify other possible causes for your pain, such as a stress fracture.

In most cases, you can treat shin splints with simple self-care steps:

  • Rest. Avoid activities that cause pain, swelling or discomfort — but don't give up all physical activity. While you're healing, try low-impact exercises, such as swimming, bicycling or water running.
  • Ice the affected area. Apply ice packs to the affected shin for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, four to eight times a day for several days. To protect your skin, wrap the ice packs in a thin towel.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Try ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) to reduce pain.

Resume your usual activities gradually. If your shin isn't completely healed, returning to your usual activities may cause continued pain.

To help prevent shin splints:

  • Choose the right shoes. Wear footwear that suits your sport. If you're a runner, replace your shoes about every 350 to 500 miles (560 to 800 kilometers).
  • Consider arch supports. Arch supports can help prevent the pain of shin splints, especially if you have flat arches.
  • Lessen the impact. Cross-train with a sport that places less impact on your shins, such as swimming, walking or biking. Remember to start new activities slowly. Increase time and intensity gradually.
  • Add strength training to your workout. To strengthen your calf muscles, try toe raises. Stand up. Slowly rise up on your toes, then slowly lower your heels to the floor. Repeat 10 times. When this becomes easy, do the exercise holding progressively heavier weights. Leg presses and other exercises for your lower legs can be helpful, too.
Jan. 25, 2014