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What’s The Difference Between Shin Splints And A Stress Fracture?

Shin splints and stress fractures are some of the most common running injuries. 

Unfortunately for me, shin splints have been something that I’ve had to deal with since high school (10 years ago) when I ran track and cross country. Over my running career I’ve seriously tried everything to prevent getting them (wearing compression socks, foam rolling, icing, stretching, strength training…etc but even with the best practices sometimes they’re inevitable. 

I bring up the topic of shin splints v. a stress fracture because yet again I’m feeling that all too familiar lower leg pain. Earlier this year I had to stop running for a couple months due to shin/calf issues, then crash trained for the Lululemon SeaWheeze Half (probably not smart) and recently started training for the Holiday Half Marathon. I’d been pain free throughout my entire SeaWheeze training but last week my shins started hurting SO BAD. 

What’s concerning is that the pain seems to be very localized, meaning it’s not my entire shin that hurts but one specific spot on my shin bone which is an indicator of an actual stress fracture. Also, I’m not just feeling pain when I run…my shins hurt when I walk and even are painful to the touch.

So what’s the difference between shin splints and a stress fracture?

Let’s get into it!


Shin splints v. stress fracture

Both shin splints and stress fractures are considered to be overuse injuries that can cause terrible pain in the lower leg area. However, they are VERY different injuries and must be treated as such. 

  • shin splints- shin splints occur when you get small tears in the area where the lower leg muscle attaches to the tibia, aka the shin bone. You’ll experience a shooting, aching pain in the front of your lower leg(s) when running, but the pain goes away when you lower your intensity, stop running, or after your run is over. When you suffer shin splints, you don’t feel the pain with other activities like walking, stretching, or climbing stairs. At this point it’s possible to prevent shin splints from developing into a stress fracture by resting/decreasing your running. If left untreated the muscles will continue to pull which may cause a crack to form in the bone, aka a stress fracture. The pain will go from being felt in your entire shin bone area to a more localize area of the bone.
  • stress fracture- stress fractures are caused by actual cracks or breaks in either of the bones in the lower leg, the tibia or fibula. If you suffer from this injury, you’ll experience pain that’s usually in the lower third part of the shin, tenderness or swelling in the specific injured area, and pain when you press on your shin in a very localized area. The pain doesn’t subside when you stop running, and regular activities like climbing stairs or jumping will cause pain, too.

source, source

To further explain the difference between shin splints and stress fractures and to address 3 signs of a stress fracture watch the video below:



Diagnosis and treatment 

The only real way to know if you’re suffering from shin splints or an actual stress fracture is to go to the doctors office and have an x-ray done to see if there are in fact cracks in your shin bone.

If there are not cracks, you probably just have shin splints. If there are visible cracks in your shin bone that is a major indicator that you may have a stress fracture.

For shin splints I think it’s best to take a couple weeks off running to let your shins heal but in some circumstances you can still run. If you choose to still run it’s recommended to run shorter distances, on softer surfaces, breaking up speed work, stretching and doing strength exercises for the shin/lower leg area. 

In the case of an actual stress fracture, unfortunately the only way your bone will heal is to stop running completely for 4-8 weeks. During this time it’s important to focus on stretching, strength training and resisting that temptation of sneaking in just a short run. If you don’t give your body the proper time to heal your shin bone may never heal which can lead to more severe issues in the future. Once you’ve given your body proper rest it’s VERY important to very gradually ease back into running to avoid re-injuring yourself. 



So what does this mean for me?

I’m temporarily self diagnosing myself with a stress fracture in my left leg and shin splint in my right leg.

BUT, thankfully this is all happening at a good time (trying to stay positive here).

I’m flying out to San Antonio for work today, am home for like 3 days then fly to Tampa for work for an entire week. Traveling makes it challenging to run and so I’m going to take these next 2 weeks completely off running to let my body heal. Instead of running for exercise I’ll be doing strength workouts and really focusing on stretching. 

In 2 weeks I’ll reassess how my shins feel and make a decision on continuing to train for the Holiday Half or taking some time off running during the holidays to recover.




Your Turn,

Have you ever had shin splints or a stress fracture?

If so, what did you do to heal your body?

Have you ever struggled with a running related injury?


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