Most people fully recover from shin splints and avoid developing stress fractures. Stress fractures take longer to heal and may require a brace, a walking boot, and crutches.

Shin splints and stress fractures are common overuse injuries often occurring in athletes participating in high impact sports, especially running.

They can cause significant pain and discomfort, which requires appropriate treatment involving rest and rehabilitation.

Distinguishing between shin splints and stress fractures can be challenging due to their overlapping causes and symptoms.

Understanding the distinctions between these two conditions is crucial for proper diagnosis and effective treatment.

Shin splints

Shin splints, also called medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), often cause lower leg pain when running, particularly at high speeds. You may feel fine at the start of your run, but the pain usually intensifies as you continue.

With this condition, walking and other physical activities typically don’t cause pain.

You may experience night pain, and the affected muscles may feel tight in the morning. Constant discomfort may develop over time as the condition worsens.

Typically, pain develops along the inner edge of the shin bone. The entire length of your shin and the surrounding tissues may feel sore or tender, particularly when you apply pressure to the affected area.

Stress fracture

A stress fracture is a microscopic crack in a bone that initially causes mild discomfort that gradually intensifies.

Stress fractures commonly develop on the medial side of the shin bone, which is the inner part of the bone. This area is particularly susceptible to this type of injury due to repetitive stress during certain physical activities.

Symptoms of a stress fracture include localized pain and tenderness in a small spot that may be horizontal in orientation.

The pain often worsens during running and weight-bearing activities, especially those involving repetitive movements. Stress fracture pain may also occur at night and tends to improve in the morning.

If your injury is severe, pain may be present during rest and other activities. It may persist even after rest and treatment. Over time, the pain can become constant and debilitating.

Overlapping signs and symptoms

Shin splints and stress fractures share some symptoms, including:

Shin splints

Shin splints occur due to repetitive stress on the muscles and connective tissues surrounding the shinbone, resulting in small tears and inflammation. Over time, this can cause the bone to weaken and lead to further damage.

Shin splints often affect people new to running or resuming running after a long hiatus. Another potential cause is increasing your running volume and intensity too quickly.

Additional causes of shin splints include:

It’s essential to recognize that without treatment, shin splints can progress to stress fractures, which are more severe injuries.

Stress fracture

Over time, repetitive stress may weaken your bone, making it prone to stress fractures.

Additional causes of stress fractures include:

Overlapping causes and risk factors

Overlapping causes and risk factors of shin splints and stress fractures include:

  • overuse
  • repetitive strain
  • flat feet
  • muscular imbalances
  • improper footwear
  • training mistakes
  • abrupt training changes

It’s possible to receive a diagnosis for shin splints and stress fractures simultaneously since they can coexist.

Healthcare professionals may mistake shin splints for stress fractures or vice versa during diagnosis due to the similarity of their symptoms, including pain and tenderness in the affected area.

A thorough physical examination and imaging tests can help to ensure an accurate diagnosis.

Shin splints

Healthcare professionals diagnose shin splints through an assessment of your symptoms and a physical examination which involves checking for pain and tenderness in the affected area.

Stress fracture

To diagnose stress fractures, healthcare professionals will ask about your medical history and perform a physical examination to check for areas of pain and tenderness. They may also look for visible signs of swelling and redness.

Stress fractures often require imaging tests such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or bone scans to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the injury.

Overlapping tools for diagnosis

Healthcare professionals commonly use medical history and physical examination to diagnose shin splints and stress fractures.

Shin splints

To treat shin splints, take a break from activities that cause pain, strain, and irritation.

Rest and reduce weight-bearing activities as much as possible, especially during the first few days. Crutches may be necessary.

Other treatments include ice, compression, and elevation. Take anti-inflammatory medications to manage pain.

As your symptoms improve, you can do stretches, flexibility exercises, and gentle activities such as swimming and cycling to maintain fitness and strength.

To reduce the likelihood of future injuries, gradually reintroduce running into your routine and build up slowly each week. Consider reducing your frequency, intensity, and volume by half.

Stress fracture

Healing a stress fracture requires rest and reducing weight bearing to promote proper bone healing and prevent further damage. You can also use ice, compression, and elevation.

Treatment may involve using crutches and wearing a walking boot. Use anti-inflammatory medications to alleviate pain.

When you feel better, gradually reintroduce activities that do not cause pain. Activities like cycling and pool exercises may be suitable during recovery.

To enhance recovery, ensure adequate intake of nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and protein, which can help improve bone strength and density.

The recovery time for a stress fracture typically takes around 4 to 12 weeks, depending on your treatment approach and injury severity.

Overlapping treatment options

Overlapping treatment options for shin splints and stress fractures include:

  • rest
  • ice
  • compression
  • elevation
  • anti-inflammatory medications
  • stretching and strengthening exercises
  • pool workouts
  • cycling

The outlook for shin splints and stress fractures is generally positive, but recovery time and treatment depend on the severity of your injury.

Treatment approaches for both conditions involve rest, icing, stretching, and gradually returning to physical activity. Healthcare professionals may recommend physical therapy in some cases.

Most people fully recover from shin splints and avoid developing stress fractures. Stress fractures take longer to heal and may require a brace, a walking boot, and crutches. Taking calcium and vitamin D supplements can help support bone health.

To avoid future injuries, follow a well-rounded training program, wear appropriate footwear, and listen to your body. If you experience pain and discomfort, take the necessary steps, such as adjusting your training routine and seeking medical advice.