What Are Shin Splints and Causes?

“Between 30-70% of runners get injured every year and as many as 35% of those injuries are shin splints

-Paul Ingraham

Pain Science

According to some sources, as many as 5-6% of all sports injuries are shin splints. Here is a bit more detail on the all too familiar nagging pain known as shin splints and who’s most at risk.

What are shin splints?

If you’re a runner, soccer player or athlete who does any form of track work you’ve probably experienced the annoying and sometimes excruciating pain of shin splints. The term “shin splints” refers to pain along the shin bone (tibia) close to the calf muscle. The most common form of shin splint is medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome. Shin splints often occur in athletes who have recently changed or ramped up their training regime, switched shoes or have poor form. When activity increases, the muscles, tendons and bone tissue become overworked causing pain after and during running.  

What causes them and who is most prone to getting them?

  • Women are 2-3x more likely to develop shin problems than men
  • People in poor physical condition are much more likely to suffer from shin splints
  • Poor running form or using the wrong footwear for your foot type increases chances for shin pain
  • Low bone density increases chances for shin splints
  • Training plans matter: Inexperienced runners, runners who drastically change their regimen or increase mileage too quickly put themselves at a higher risk for developing shin splints

Shin splints were once thought to be a soft tissue injury. With more precise anatomic studies done, we now know that all overuse injuries to the tibia exist on a spectrum of bony injuries. This tells us that the root cause of shin splints is repeated stress to the bone during running, caused by slight bending of the bone when loaded. While running, the tibia bends backwards slightly on impact with the ground in order to support body weight, putting compressive force on the medial side of the bone.

The group most vulnerable to getting shin splints is less-experienced runners. This is because their bone has not yet adapted to the stresses of high-impact activity. It can take up to several months for the tibia bones to adapt, creating a period of time where new runners are very susceptible to nagging shin pain. Very few experienced runners have to deal with shin pain on a regular basis.

Understanding what causes this extremely common overuse injury is the first step in prevention. If you are a new runner, pay special attention to your training plan and be diligent about following it. Invest in the adequate gear (get fitted for the right shoe for your foot) and pay attention to having proper running form. If you’re new to exercise in general or planning on ramping up training, don’t try and do too much too soon. Even though it can be hard to do sometimes, carefully increasing your training is a much better alternative to getting shin splints and having to take time off completely.

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