Feeling the Sting of Shin Splints? Ease the Pain with These PT-Approved Stretches
Learn what causes shin splints and get tips and exercises from physical therapists to help relieve the pain and prevent it in the future.
Ever go for a run and feel an ouch-ouch-ouch sensation in your shins? It’s possible you’re experiencing the telltale sign of shin splints.
“Shin splints — which refer to pain along the inner edge of the shinbone — are usually related to physical activity, and they’re especially common among runners,” says Julianne Payton, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. In fact, some research suggests that up to 70% of all runners experience them each year.
While shin splints can be painful, relief thankfully isn’t hard to come by. With simple measures like adjusting activity temporarily, icing, and some gentle strengthening and stretching exercises, you’ll be back to all the workouts you love in no time.
Read on to learn more about shin splints — what causes them and how to treat them, plus exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Julianne Payton, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What Are Shin Splints?
“Shin splints are caused by an irritation where the muscles and tendons attach to the bones in your shins,” explains Dr. Payton.
You’ll usually notice pain at the inner border of your shinbone, which is the exact point of attachment. Shin splints are a common issue among athletes, since they often put stress on their shin bones, muscles, and tendons. But the pain usually resolves with simple at-home treatment.
While the recovery plan may not be intense, that doesn’t mean you should take it lightly. You want to treat your shin splints as soon as the pain develops in order to build up more tolerance for your activities and prevent reinjury.
Symptoms of Shin Splints
The most obvious sign of shin splints is pain along the border of your shinbone, says Dr. Payton. “It’s not one tiny spot, either — it’s usually at least a finger-length distance along the inside of your shin that feels worse when you run or jump,” she adds. The pain typically occurs during and after you work out, and it gets worse when you touch the sore area.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to describe how the pain feels. “Sometimes, patients describe their shin splint pain as sharp and razor-like, while others report it as dull or throbbing,” says Dr. Payton.
Common Causes of Shin Splints
Shin splints are simply a response to stress on your lower legs, says Dr. Payton. “It occurs when your activity level becomes more than your shins and calves can currently handle,” she explains. Here are some of the most common reasons you may experience shin splints:
Changes in physical activity. If you’ve always been a runner but have started to run longer distances — for example, you’re training for a half-marathon — the changes in pace and duration can irritate shin muscles and tendons until they’re used to what’s required of them to conquer new lengths.
Changes in running surface. Gone from running on flat terrain to hills, or vice versa? Even seemingly small changes like these can trigger shin splints. “It’s not that these things are bad — it’s just more than your body can handle at this point in time,” explains Dr. Payton.
Your overall foot anatomy. If you have flat feet or very high or rigid arches, you’re at greater risk of developing shin splints, according to a 2023 review in the journal Cureus. That’s because more stress is put on your lower leg muscles during exercise.
Type of activity. Runners and dancers are among the most at risk of developing shin splints. But any physical activity that involves jumping or running, like basketball, volleyball, or even pickleball, can trigger shin splints, notes Dr. Payton.
Improper footwear. When your exercise shoes don’t provide enough support, this puts more stress on your shin muscles and tendons.
Treatment Options for Shin Splints
Most of the time, shin splints will resolve on their own if you tweak your exercise routine and do some gentle stretching and strengthening exercises for your leg and calf muscles. The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists can provide relief for shin splints:
Adjust your workouts. Since shin splints are caused by engaging in activities that may be too strenuous for your body at a given time, you’ll want to back off the activity a bit and listen to your body. Don’t stop moving or exercising, though.
“I usually suggest people scale down by about 50% for a couple weeks,” says Dr. Payton. If you run, you may need to reduce your pace to a brisk walk, run for shorter periods of time, or add in more breaks during your normal cardio session. You can also adjust your cadence (increasing the number of steps per minute) or try out more hills (which naturally cause you to land softer). You might even consider changing your surface. For example, jog on dirt roads or grass, rather than concrete. You can also switch some of your workouts to low-impact or no-impact activities, such as biking, swimming, or using an elliptical.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful to relieve discomfort from shin splints. It’s important to make sure that you’re safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.
Ice. Apply a cold pack for 20 minutes at a time several times a day to lessen inflammation, says Dr. Payton.
Compression bandages. These can help prevent swelling and may provide additional support. A 2021 study in BMC Sports Science, Medicine, and Rehabilitation found that about 90% of athletes who used compression bandages to help treat conditions like shin splints reported relief.
Physical therapy. A PT can show you specific stretching and strengthening exercises for your lower leg that may help your shins feel better, says Dr. Payton. (More on that below.) They may also use techniques like dry needling or massage to relieve discomfort. A 2017 study in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy found that dry needling helped to relieve lower leg pain when it was done within the first 12 weeks of pain onset.
You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via a telehealth or video visit.
Supportive shoes. If you’ve had your athletic shoes for a while (generally, more than six months), Dr. Payton recommends you trade them in for a new pair. “There’s no perfect shoe that works well for everyone — go to your local sneaker store and find one that’s most comfortable for you,” she advises. You should also wear shoes with good cushioning during the day, at work, and while running errands. This will help to reduce stress on your shins outside of exercise. If you have flat feet, you may find that over-the-counter shoe inserts or orthotics also help.
Exercises for Shin Splint Relief
These exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to improve strength and relieve pain brought on by shin splints. They specifically target the muscles in your lower leg, particularly the calf muscles, so your shinbone feels supported as you exercise.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
PT Tip: Set Clear Expectations
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t expect your shin splints to vanish that quickly either. “They’re likely to stick around for a while, so prepare yourself mentally for them lasting at least a couple of months,” advises Dr. Payton. If your shin splints were affected by running, that doesn’t mean you have to stop running that entire time. But you may want to start at a lower intensity and increase it gradually as you feel stronger. Over time, you’ll build back up to your baseline and beyond.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.
See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Bhusari, N., Deshmukh, M. (2023). Shin Splint: A Review. Cureus, 15(1). doi:10.7759/cureus.33905
Franke, T. P. C., Backx, F. J. G., & Huisstede, B. M. A. (2021). Lower extremity compression garments use by athletes: why, how often, and perceived benefit. BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation, 13(1). doi:10.1186/s13102-020-00230-8
Gattie, E., Cleland, J. A., & Snodgrass, S. (2017). The Effectiveness of Trigger Point Dry Needling for Musculoskeletal Conditions by Physical Therapists: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 47(3), 133–149. doi:10.2519/jospt.2017.7096