Shin splints in young athletes


Shin Splints | Texas Children's Hospital

Spring means warmer weather, more rain and the start of track and soccer season. Young athletes who play sports with heavy amounts of running and jumping can commonly complain of lower leg pain. Shin splints are one of the main causes of this lower leg pain.

What are shin splints?

First, let’s go over the anatomy of the leg. The lower leg, below the knee, is composed of two bones – the main shinbone, or tibia, and the smaller bone on the side, the fibula. Each bone has a dense layer of covering, which can be likened to wrapping the bones with plastic wrap. The covering is called periosteum, and is where all the muscles attach. When the periosteum is irritated, inflamed or suffers micro-tears from overuse, the resulting pain is what often defines shin splints. Medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS) is the technical name for shin splints.

What causes them?

Shin splints can result from a variety of factors such as: overtraining, inadequate rest, muscle imbalances, poor nutrition, improper running form, flat feet, change in training routine and even incorrect shoes.

What are the symptoms?

Shin splints usually present as diffuse pain, often described as achy or dull, residing along the inside and border of the tibia. This pain can sometimes become sharp in severe cases, and might intensify when touched. Often, the pain will fade with rest or even during the cool down portion of a workout. Pain from shin splints is typically not present when the athlete is simply walking around.

How do you treat shin splints?

Decreasing workout intensity or lowering mileage is the most common initial treatment for shin splints. Ice and ibuprofen can be used for pain relief. 

Everyone is different, so identifying the cause of the pain is critical in treatment. For some athletes, correcting running form by working on the flexibility and strength of the lower legs, hips, and core muscles is vitally important. This can be done through a variety of stretching and strengthening exercises.

If your child’s pain worsens or persists for more than one to two weeks, consider visiting your pediatrician or a sports medicine specialist for further evaluation, especially if walking becomes painful, swelling/redness occurs or tingling/numbness sensations are felt in the legs or feet.

One of the important conditions to rule out is a stress fracture. Stress fractures are different from fractures you get from a fall or hit. These are the result of repetitive stress on a bone, causing it to eventually break, and must be treated by a doctor. As part of your child’s evaluation, your doctor might order different imaging tests of the lower legs.

Remind your children to be safe during their springtime sports.