Shin Splints vs. Stress Fractures: What is the Difference?

December 16, 2019 | By: Raleigh Orthopaedic Team

What are Shin Splints?

Shin splints or medial tibial stress syndrome, are an inflammation of the muscles, tendons and bone tissue around the tibia, or shin bone. Pain is usually along the inner edge of the shinbone and typically develops after physical activity. They are often associated with running but any vigorous sports activity can bring on shin splints, such as starting a fitness program.

With shin splints, you may experience a shooting, aching pain in the front of your lower leg when running, but the pain goes away when you lower your intensity, stop running, or after your run is over. If you run your fingers along the shin bone, it will usually hurt through the entire area. When you suffer shin splints, you don’t feel the pain with other activities like walking, stretching, or climbing stairs.

Treatment for Shin Splints

Shin splints are typically caused by overuse or overworked by repetitive activity. They can also develop after sudden changes in physical activity. These can be changes in frequency, such as increasing the number of days you exercise each week. Changes in duration and intensity, such as running longer distances or on hills, can also cause shin splints.

Treatment includes several weeks of rest from the activity that caused the pain. Lower impact types of activity, such as swimming or using a stationary bike, can be substituted during your recovery. Other treatments include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines can reduce pain and swelling, ice, stretching and strengthening exercises for your lower leg muscles.

Adding arch supports to your running shoes may be helpful if you have flat feet; if you have high arches, try adding cushioned insoles. Taking care not to overdo your exercise routine will help prevent shin splints from coming back.

Before returning to exercise, you should be pain-free for at least 2 weeks. Keep in mind that, when you return to exercise, it must be at a lower level of intensity. You should not be exercising as often as you did before, or for the same length of time. Be sure to warm up and stretch thoroughly before you exercise.

Increase training slowly. If you start to feel the same pain, stop exercising immediately. Use a cold pack and rest for a day or two. Return to training again at a lower level of intensity. Increase training even more slowly than before.

What is a Stress Fracture?

A stress fracture is a very small crack or group of cracks that form in the bone itself. The most common site for a stress fracture is the lower part of the tibia.

In stress fractures, the pain is usually in one or multiple specific or focused spots along the shin bone. The pain of a stress fracture is also a deep, throbbing pain in comparison to pain of shin splints that is usually described as tight and dull ache. Impact, when your foot hits the ground, is painful and pain will normally occur with regular activities such as climbing stairs, walking or sitting.

Treatment for Stress Fractures

Like shin splints, stress fractures are also usually caused by overuse and rest is an important treatment. Take time off from the activity that caused the pain and engage in pain-free activity for six to eight weeks to allow time for the stress fracture to heal.

Comprehensive Sports Medicine Care in Wake County

At Raleigh Orthopaedic, our team of sports medicine therapists and specialists are committed to providing you with the best possible treatment and long-term outcome for your injury or condition. Click the button below or call us to schedule an appointment with one of our orthopedic specialists. If your injury or condition is recent, you can walk right into one of our Raleigh Orthopaedic Urgent Care locations for immediate care. For rehabilitation and physical therapy, no referral is needed to see one of our physical therapists.