Running Injuries: Is It Shin Splits or a Stress Fracture?

July 11, 2017
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While they both affect the lower leg, shin splints and stress fractures have very different consequences. Because it can sideline them for weeks, runners tend to shake at the mere mention of a stress fracture. On the other hand, shin splints tend to be more of a nuisance that can hamper performance. If you've recently experienced lower leg pain, learn how to determine the cause of the injury.
What Is a Stress Fracture?
Stress fractures are essentially tiny cracks in a bone, caused by overuse or repetitive force. Typically the result of long-distance running or repeated jumping, a stress fracture can also arise from normal, everyday activities if a bone has weakened due to osteoporosis. While anyone can suffer a stress fracture, runners are at a higher risk, especially if they are beginning a new exercise regimen.
What Are Shin Splints?
Medically termed medial tibial stress syndrome, "shin splints" refers to pain or discomfort along the tibia (shine bone). Although it may feel as though the bone is affected, the actual source of the pain stems from inflammation of the tendons, muscles, and tissue around the bone. Also common in runners, shin splints tend to occur when athletes either alter or intensify their training routines.
How Can I Tell the Difference?
Unfortunately, it's not always easy to determine the source of lower leg pain without an evaluation from a doctor. In some cases, the pain may be caused by simple shin splints; in other cases, it could be caused by a stress fracture, chronic exertional compartment syndrome or muscle strain/tendonitis.
With shin splints, the tenderness or pain usually spans just a few inches in length. At first the pain might cease when you stop running. Over time, however, pain could become chronic as the injury progresses into a stress fracture.
What Should I Do?
If you first started to experience minor lower leg pain, take a break from your running regimen. Treat the affected area with ice and perform stretching and quad strengthening exercises. You might be able to relieve some of the pain by changing shoes or by adding arch support. If the injury progresses, however, you should see a doctor. While some stress fractures are too small to show up on an x-ray, a doctor can usually make an accurate diagnosis based on your symptoms.
Unfortunately, if you do have a stress fracture, you will need to rest the injury for about four to six weeks. You can help prevent lower leg injuries by making sure you get plenty of calcium in your diet. You should also pace yourself when altering your running regimen, especially if you have a history of lower leg injuries.

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