How to Get Rid of Shin Splints Pain for Good

Covenant Swirl Logo

Causes, Symptoms and Treatment   

When the weather warms up, runners hit the streets of Knoxville, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been training for the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon, and the toll of pounding miles of pavement may result in some unexpected pain. If you’ve been on the run and you’ve noticed your lower legs hurt, you might be suffering the effects of medial tibial stress syndrome, better known as shin splints

What Are Shin Splints?   

Jennifer Civis
Jennifer Civis, physical therapist

The term, “shin splints,” is used to describe pain in the front of the lower leg. The pain of shin splints may come from inflammation or irritation of the bone, inflammation of the muscle or from pressure that builds up in the muscle. 

“Shin splints indicate the body is not keeping up with the load and needs a rest,” says Jennifer Civis, a physical therapist with Covenant Health Therapy Centers, who works with patients regarding this common running injury, how to treat it and how it can be avoided in the future. Covenant Health Therapy Centers treat patients at clinic locations in seven counties in East Tennessee. A referral isn’t necessary for an assessment or treatment. 

Shin splints are not the only causes of pain in the lower legs, however. Other problems can also cause pain.  

Shin Splints vs. Stress Fractures  

Like shin splints, stress fractures can happen when the body can’t bear the load on the road (or wherever you’re running). While shin splints are caused by inflammation of the bone tissue, muscles, and tendons around the tibia, stress fractures are caused by small cracks in the bone. 

Both conditions are painful, but the pain shows up in different ways. Shin splints are more likely to hurt over a broad area while stress fractures hurt in a smaller area. If you have shin splints, you might feel better after you warm up. If you have a stress fracture, weight-bearing exercise will make the pain worse. The pain of a stress fracture often stays with you even when you’re at rest. 

Shin Splints vs. Compartment Syndrome    

Compartment syndrome is damaging pressure in a particular group (compartment) of muscles, nerves and blood vessels. It’s very rare and symptoms often include swelling, bulging muscle, numbness and/or tingling (from affected nerves) and problems moving the foot.   

One of the best ways to tell the difference between shin splints and compartment syndrome is the location of the pain. Shin splints hurt on the inside front of the leg. Compartment syndrome causes pain on the outside front of the leg. 

Another tell-tale sign is the timing. The pain from shin splints is more likely to ease up when you stop running. Compartment syndrome is more likely to stay with you longer when your run is over. 


What Causes Shin Splints?  

Shin splints can happen to anyone who takes part in an activity that puts a lot of stress on the legs. That can include anyone from a runner to a dancer to a military recruit in training. 

Some risk factors are: 

  • A sudden increase in activity that puts stress or strain on the tibia, or shinbone, and the tissues around it. A classic example is a runner who decides to try a marathon without taking time bouild up endurance through months of important training miles.
  • Running on feet that have structural issues. Flat feet and high or rigid arches can set the stage for shin splints. So can feet that turn in (over-pronate). When hitting pavement to “make a run for it,” these feet might not be able to properly absorb and distribute the force of the impact. Wearing good quality shoes that are made to address these issues can help. 
  • Running in East Tennessee! The greater Knoxville area is well-known for mountains, hills and valleys, which put more strain on runners’ legs and feet. In addition to running on uneven terrain, long running on hard surfaces can also increase the risk of shin splints. 

How to Know If You Have Shin Splints  

 The pain of shin splints is usually felt where muscles attach to the bone along the inner side of the lower leg. The shin may be sensitive to touch, and you may notice some mild swelling. 

The symptoms can vary. The pain may be a dull throbbing sensation, or it may be sharp. It may happen during exercise, or it may show up afterward.  

How to Treat Shin Splints  

Shin splints can usually be treated at home.  

  • Rest! Allow your legs the time they need to heal. 
  • Cloth-covered ice packs can be put on the shins for up to 20 minutes, four to eight times a day. 
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen can be taken for pain.* 

 While there are some trending alternative treatments, Civis says these basic steps are supported by clinical research, time-tested and proven to help the body move toward healing. 

How Long Do Shin Splints Last?  

 In most cases, the pain of shin splints goes away after about a week of treatment.  

  • Refrain from activities that involve running or jumping until the pain has completely subsided. 
  • When the pain is gone, don’t restart running or weight-bearing exercise for at least two to four weeks. Swimming and bicycling are great examples of safe exercises to enjoy until you’re ready to run. 
  • Invest time in exercises to strengthen the legs as you rebuild your running routine. 
  • Return to exercise gradually. 

If a couple of weeks have passed and the pain hasn’t subsided, schedule an appointment with a physical therapist for an assessment. 

“Physical therapy can help assess for underlying factors like joint stiffness or muscle weakness that affect gait pattern and therefore affect the load running puts on their body,” Civis says. “We’re trained to address these issues to help the athlete return to sport and prevent reinjury if standard at-home care does not work.” 

How to Prevent Shin Splints  

Once you’ve experienced shin splints, you’ll want to do whatever it takes to prevent them in the future. Here are some preventive steps: 

  • See a physical therapist for exercises that can help build supportive strength in the lower legs. 
  • Invest in good-quality running shoes that provide arch support and cushioning, especially in the heel. Shop for shoes at a store that specializes in footwear for running. 
  • Ask a physical therapist about orthotics that can support the foot and keep the ankle from rolling in. 
  • Warm up and stretch before running. 
  • After running, take time for some cool-down exercises and stretching. 

While shin splints are painful, they are also preventable and treatable, and they don’t have to keep you from enjoying the satisfaction of running in East Tennessee! 

On Tuesday. April 9, 3 -5 p.m., Covenant Health Therapy Centers will host free post-marathon injury clinics for any registered participant in a 2024 Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon event, whether the event is the full marathon, half marathon, team relays or 5K. Bring a race bib and a photo ID to the downtown, west, or Lenoir City locations for an assessment and recommendations to help you heal. 

*Aspirin or medicines that have aspirin in them should not be given to anyone younger than 18 years of age. Taking aspirin is a risk for a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome. NSAIDs should be taken with food or milk to prevent stomach upset. NSAIDs should not be taken by anyone who has been diagnosed with asthma, ulcer disease, or a bleeding disorder. Taking NSAIDs increases the risk of bleeding with trauma, dental work, surgery, or if taking blood thinners (anticoagulants). 

Covenant Swirl Logo
About the Author

Covenant Health

Headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, Covenant Health is a community-owned, healthcare enterprise committed to providing the right care at the right time and place. Covenant Health is the area’s largest employer and has more than 11,000 compassionate caregivers, expert clinicians, and dedicated employees and volunteers.

Covenant Health