Open a PDF version to print this topic

HealthInfo West Coast-Te Tai Poutini

Shin pain

shin splintsLeg pain along the front of your leg between your knee and ankle (your shin) is commonly called shin splints. The medical name for it is medial tibial stress.

Pain from shin splints is worse when you exercise and settles when you rest. Doctors don't know exactly why shin splints happen. They tend to be as a result of overuse and typically happen in runners.

Some things seem to make shin splints more likely. These include:

Some muscle and structural problems with your lower leg and foot might also contribute. These include:

Stress fractures

A stress fracture in your tibia can also cause pain that is very similar to shin splints. Stress fractures tend to happen as a result of overuse. If your pain has become more constant, rather than just happening with activity, see your GP or physiotherapist, as it may be a stress fracture.

What should I do if I have shin splints?

There are several things you can do yourself to treat shin splints, and in mild cases you won't need to see a health professional. If you follow the advice below, your symptoms should get much better within seven to 10 days and you should be able to slowly build up your level of activity.

If the symptoms are severe, continuous, don't go away, or if they get worse, see your doctor, physiotherapist, or podiatrist.

Rest

Rest is the main treatment for shin splints. This means avoiding any activity, such as running, which hurts or may have led to the shin splints. You should rest for seven to 10 days.

Ice and elevation

Applying ice to your shin and raising your leg (elevation) may also help to lessen the pain. Do both for 15 to 20 minutes, two to three times a day.

Ice slows down blood flow to the injured area, which helps to reduce pain. Raising your leg helps to reduce swelling. You can make an ice pack by wrapping ice cubes in a plastic bag or towel, or using a bag of frozen peas. Don't put the ice directly on your skin, as it can cause an ice burn.

Gently press the ice onto the painful part of your leg.

To elevate your leg when you are sitting down, put it up on a chair, at least as high as your hips. It may be easier to lie on a sofa and put your foot on some cushions. When you're in bed, put a pillow under your feet.

Pain relief

Paracetamol (Panadol) can help to reduce the pain. Take it according to the instructions on the packet for three to four days. If pain is still a problem after that, consult your health professional.

You can also use anti-inflammatory pain relief, such as ibuprofen (Nurofen) or diclofenac (Voltaren). These medicines are also called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. As well as relieving pain, they also limit inflammation.

However, NSAIDs can have some serious side-effects, especially if you take them for a long time. Two serious side effects are stomach pain and bleeding from your stomach. Some people with asthma, high blood pressure, kidney failure, and heart failure might not be able to take them even for a short time. If you're not sure if you can take NSAIDs, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

Stretches

You can gently stretch the area by bending your foot down until you can feel a pull through the sore area. Hold this for 30 seconds to one minute, and repeat it two to three times a day. The long calf stretch and short calf stretch will also help.

If you've tried all these steps and your pain isn't getting better, you may need to see a podiatrist or physiotherapist to help your treatment.

How can I avoid getting shin splints again?

Using shock-absorbent insoles in your training shoes, graduated running programmes (building your training up slowly so your body has time to adjust) and regularly replacing your training footwear may help you avoid getting shin splints again.

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created August 2016. Last updated June 2018.

Page reference: 281935

Review key: HIHIL-240273