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Shin Splints: Signs and Symptoms

Shin splints (medial tibial stress syndrome) is a term for painful inflammation in the tendons and muscles along your shin bone. They happen due to repetitive strain or overuse, usually from running or another form of exercise.

Shin splints tend to develop fairly suddenly—like after a switch up in your workout routine—but usually heal with rest and home remedies within several weeks.

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A couple of tell-tale symptoms usually indicate you may be dealing with shin splints. These include:

Perhaps most noticeably, shin splints involve pain along the inner edge of the shin bone, which is called the tibia. This type of pain can be described as anything from sharp and throbbing to dull and aching. It can be felt down the entire length of the shin bone, or it might just affect a certain portion of that area.

For most people, shin splint pain is experienced both during and after physical activity—like walking, jogging, or running. While it typically gets better with rest and icing, it’s possible to still feel shin splint pain even when taking it easy. You may notice that this initial sharp and sometimes constant pain is most prominent for the first week or so, right after the repetitive stress or strain has injured the shin area.

In addition to pain, many people experience tenderness around the shin bone. Tenderness is slightly different than localized pain. This means that the area is sore and sensitive to touch, like if someone presses down on or squeezes along the shin. This tenderness will eventually dwindle as the injury heals.

Some mild swelling also commonly develops with shin splints. This is because tiny tears in the muscles, tendons, and tissues surrounding the shin bone have become inflamed. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to managing and repairing injuries. Shin splint swelling can last up to four weeks as the body works through the healing process.

In most cases, these common symptoms tend to go away gradually over up to six weeks. They can affect one or both legs.

Outside of the pain, tenderness, and swelling that most people experience with shin splints, there are a couple of other symptoms that aren’t quite as common. These include:

  • Red or discolored skin
  • Decrease in lower leg flexibility
  • Radiation of pain to the foot

Depending on your skin tone, it’s possible to notice red or discolored patches of skin along the shin bone. This discoloration may develop in the areas where the most pain is felt. As a part of the body’s healing response, this type of redness is linked to an increased blood flow to the area—but it’s likely not a symptom that would happen in every shin splints case.

In addition, a decrease in flexibility in parts of the lower leg can be another less common sign of shin splints. This might manifest as tighter calf muscles or poor flexibility in the ankles. Researchers have found a connection between the muscles in the feet and lower limb conditions like shin splints.

While shin splints almost always affect just the shin area, some research has found that pain and other sensations may extend down to the foot in some instances. This might feel like numbness, tingling, or weakness. While it’s not always experienced with shin splints, this could be the sign of an additional underlying muscle or nerve-related condition.

In chronic (long-lasting) cases of shin splints, some rare symptoms can pop up.

One of these rare signs is severe swelling. While some mild swelling or inflammation commonly happens with shin splints, it would be abnormal to experience notable swelling of the entire lower leg. This may point to a severe case of shin splints or indicate another injury or condition at play.

The presence of lumps or bumps along the shin bone is another rare shin splint symptom. Though it’s technically possible for bone cysts to occur with shin splints, it’s not typical. Bumps or cysts that develop on the shin bone would indicate that new bone growth is happening, which would be more likely when there’s a stress fracture or another condition affecting the area.

While experiencing a case of shin splints is typically not a cause for concern, some instances may warrant a trip to a healthcare provider. For example, if you find yourself experiencing the following symptoms, it’s probably a good idea to schedule a medical appointment:

  • Pain that lasts for several weeks despite rest, icing the area, and using over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers
  • Noticeable swelling along the shin bone

You might also consider seeing a healthcare provider if you’re unsure whether the pain in your lower leg area is caused by shin splints. They’ll perform a physical examination and take an x-ray to rule out a stress fracture, which is a small crack in the shin bone. You may also be evaluated for other shin-related issues, like exertional compartment syndrome (a painful pressure buildup around the muscles) or tendinitis (an injury that happens when the tendon becomes inflamed).

Other shin symptoms that may indicate an infection or bone fracture and require urgent medical attention include:

  • Sudden and severe shin pain that prevents you from moving around or walking
  • Prominently discolored or red skin in the shin area that also feels warm or hot to the touch
  • Lower leg swelling that seems to be getting worse

Physical Therapy

If you think you have shin splints, a physical therapist (PT) or Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) can assess your strength, your range of motion, and the mechanics of your ankle, knee, and hip/pelvis. There could be underlying causes of the shin splints, or triggers that make them worse.

A PT or DPT can also give you exercises to strengthen your muscles and relieve pain.

Shin splints commonly cause pain, tenderness, and swelling along the shin bone. These symptoms are usually most noticeable during and after physical activity, like running. Some other not-so-common signs of shin splints include red or discolored patches of skin, pain that radiates to the foot, and bumps along the shin bone.

Because there are several causes of lower leg pain, it’s a good idea to check with a healthcare provider if your shin symptoms aren’t improving after a couple of weeks of home remedies like rest, OTC pain relievers, and icing.

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