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Shin splints (medial tibial stress syndrome)

Many athletes get shin splints, also called sore shins or medial tibial stress syndrome, at one time or another. Whether you jog daily or just sprint to catch a bus one day, you can get shin splints. While they often heal on their own, severe shin splints can be a problem.

runner standing on track

Shin splints aren't really a single medical condition. Instead, they're just a symptom of an underlying problem. They might be caused by:

  • Irritated and swollen muscles, often caused by overuse.
  • Stress fractures, which are tiny, hairline breaks in the lower leg bones.
  • Over-pronation or ''flat feet”, which is when the impact of a step causes the arch of your foot to collapse, stretching the muscles and tendons.

Shin splints are very common. They are the cause of 13% of all running injuries. Runners might get them after increasing the intensity of their running or changing the surface they run on from a relatively soft surface to a hard surface. Shin splints are also common in dancers.

What do shin splints feel like?

Shin splints tend to cause dull, aching pain in the front of the lower leg. Some people feel this pain only when they are exercising while others feel it when they stop exercising. Sometimes the pain is constant. And can be severe with areas of intense tenderness. This might imply underlying stress fractures.

Depending on the exact cause, the pain may be located along either side of the shinbone or in the muscles. The area may be painful to the touch. Swollen muscles can sometimes irritate the nerves in the feet, causing them to tingle or feel numb.

To diagnose shin splints, your doctor will give you a thorough physical examination. A doctor specialising in sports injuries or physiotherapist may want to see you run to look for problems. Sometimes you would need X-rays or bone scans to look for fractures, especially if you are a regular sportsperson. Other tests are sometimes necessary. Bone scans and MRIs tend to be more useful than X-rays.

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