Finding yourself hobbled with shin pain a few weeks after starting a running routine can suck the excitement out of a new fitness program. But there’s good news: You can take steps to prevent shin splints, a common overuse injury frequently seen in people who are new to high-impact activities like running.
Some people use shin splints as a general way of describing any type of pain in the lower leg. Most often, however, they’re referring to what health care providers call medial tibial stress syndrome, an irritation of your shinbone’s periosteum, the tissue surrounding bones that provides blood supply, Rich Willy, PT, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Montana and director of the Montana Running Lab, tells SELF.
Symptoms of shin splints include an achy pain that’s widespread throughout the inside of one or both lower legs during a run or workout but typically subsides as you keep going or soon afterward, Brittany Moran, DC, CSCS, a certified running coach for Nike Toronto, sports chiropractor, and elite marathoner, tells SELF.
And pain is never something to take lightly: If you don’t take steps to address the problem, running through shin splints can cause the pain to worsen until it prevents you from running at all. What’s more, a more serious injury like a stress fracture—a tiny crack in your bone that requires rest to heal—can develop too. That’s why proper identification of the problem is so important.
Fortunately, though, there are things you can do both to prevent shin splints from occurring in the first place. But before we get into all that, let’s dive into what exactly is going on in your lower legs that’s causing that discomfort in the first place.
What are shin splints?
Shin splints are an overuse injury, meaning they’re the result of small, repetitive strain rather than a sudden accident or trauma. Though they’re especially common in runners, shin splints can also occur in dancers, hikers, and soccer players, or anyone else doing high-impact movements.
Before we dive in, it’ll be easier to discuss shin splints if we can do a quick anatomy lesson. There are two bones in your lower leg: the larger tibia, which is in the front of your leg, and the smaller fibula, which is located on the outside of your tibia. You feel shin splint pain on your tibia, due to the irritation of the bone tissue called periosteum, which acts as a sheath that covers your tibia.
Though you’ll likely feel the pain on the inside of your lower leg, the problem often begins closer to the front of your foot, Efren Caballes, DO, a sports medicine physician and cohost of the Ready to Run podcast, tells SELF. Many runners—especially those whose bodies are still getting used to the mechanics of running—have some wobbling in the front of their foot as they move through their stride. This lack of control causes your arch to collapse a bit as you roll through your foot, then push off for your next step.