Intense exercise takes a toll on your body, and runners know all too well the stress it puts on your lower extremities. Unfortunately, shin splints and stress fractures are common among runners and athletes. While their symptoms can present themselves in similar ways, knowing the difference between the two can help you treat them properly.
Shin splints and stress fractures can be very painful and should be managed properly. Learn how to identify, treat, and prevent these injuries.
What are shin splints?
Shin splints are tears or inflammation that cause pain in the shin (tibia), affecting the muscles and tendons. Shin splints are common in runners, athletes, soldiers, and those who are new to intense activity.
What are stress fractures?
Stress fractures are small cracks that form in your bones. These tiny fractures can appear in one bone, or you can have multiple fractures in many bones. Similar to shin splints, stress fractures are common among runners, soldiers, and athletes—especially gymnasts and volleyball players because of the jumping and high impact that accompanies those sports.
Symptoms for shin splints and stress fractures can be similar, but there are some differences that can help you recognize which injury you're experiencing.
Stress fractures that occur in the ankle or feet are more easily identifiable because of the location. However, if a stress fracture occurs on the lower leg, it can be confused with shin splints.
Both conditions produce feelings of tenderness, aches, and pains. Shin splints produce radiating pain, whereas stress fractures produce a specific pain point.
The pain that comes with these injuries occurs at different times. Shin splints are likely to cause pain while running or doing moderate to intense activity. Stress fractures can hurt not only during exercise, but also while simply walking or doing low-intensity activities.
Shin splints and stress fractures are caused by the same repetitive physical stress including:
- Overuse: Not allowing your body to get adequate rest between training sessions or you’re training too intensely or for too long
- A sudden increase in duration, frequency, or intensity of exercise: If you’re starting a new routine, it’s best to ease into it by slowly adding time, frequency of workouts, and intensity
- High or low arches in the feet: Having particularly high or low arches can alter your gait and produce differences that make shin splints and stress fractures more likely
- Improper footwear during exercise: improper or worn out shoes don't provide you with enough support, leading to improper form and can result in injury
- Rest: Discontinue intense exercise during recovery but stay active by walking or doing low impact activity
- Ice: Try icing four to eight times a day for 15 minutes at a time
- Over the counter pain relievers: Reduce pain with pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Rest: You'll need to stay off of your feet as much as possible (typically 6 to 8 weeks) until a medical provider clears you for activity
- Splinting: Depending on the location of the stress fracture, you may need a splint or you may need to be non-weight bearing
- Ice: We recommend icing to reduce swelling and pain; three to four times a day for 15 minutes
- Provider’s approval before returning to activity: When you are given the go-ahead to resume activity from your medical provider, be sure to ease into exercise gradually, focusing on low impact activities
- Surgery: Severe stress fractures may require surgical treatment
Whether you’ve been an avid runner for years or just starting a new exercise routine, preventing the development of injury is essential.
- Check your form: Improper movement patterns can lead to injury. Having a professional analyze your movement can help you spot any potential errors and improve where necessary.
- Reduce intense activity: Listen to your body! It's crucial that you take breaks from intense or long-duration activity, as you need to allow your body time to heal before jumping back into it.
- Diversify your workouts: If you're a dedicated runner, switch up your routine to swimming or cycling to reduce the impact on your legs.
- Add in strength training: Strengthening your muscles can help your body cope with the high-impact activities that cause shin splints and stress fractures.
- Wear proper shoes: Your shoes should be comfortable, designed for physical activity, and replaced regularly. Most experts recommend replacing your shoes every 350 to 500 miles.
- Heal properly before re-entering your exercise routine: It's important not to rush back into exercise after an injury. Ease back into your routine and add intensity slowly over time.
Struggling with shin splints or stress fractures? Consult a Voyage Healthcare provider
Shin splints and stress fractures can put a damper on your routine. Make sure you're healing properly by scheduling an appointment with your provider about additional steps you can take to help manage and prevent these injuries.