Article written by Scot Singpiel, University of Utah Healthcare

For runners, athletes, and other active people, shin splints can be a common soreness or pain that you learn to work through. Stress fractures can have similar signs and symptoms and shin splints, but are potentially much more serious and require weeks of treatment. Athletic trainer Travis Nolan explains the difference between a splint and a fracture and when you should seek a professional evaluation.

Interviewer: If shin splints have been bothering you for more than a few weeks, it could be more than shin splints. Athletic trainer Travis Nolan, why do you recommend a professional evaluation of chronic shin splints by a physical therapist or an athletic trainer if it’s been something that’s been going on for more than a few days?

Travis: You can very easily mix up shin splints with a stress fracture. They give very identical signs and symptoms. They cause the same sort of dysfunction. It’s something that, most of the time, athletes can easily push through it and they can sort of tolerate and deal with the pain and it doesn’t necessarily take them out of practice. But eventually, when it does take them out of practice, that’s when you see them in a clinic. And then at that point, it’s like, “Oh, man, you have a full-blown stress fracture. This has progressed, and now we need to hold you out for . . .” whatever it may be, four to six weeks, “. . . in order to let that stress fracture heal up.”

So sometimes those situations can be avoided. They can be caught early, implemented restorally, and then you’re not missing as much time from athletics if you get those stress fractures checked out sooner rather than later.

Interviewer: And what exactly is a stress fracture and how is that happening? What’s going on there?

Travis: So a stress fracture is more like a stress response from the bones. So it does go through certain stages. That stress response is also almost exactly what shin splints are. It’s sort of a stress response in your shin. It’s an inflammation and irritation of the periosteum or the covering around your shin bone, your long bone right there in your shin.

So it progresses from that sort of first stage of just inflammation, it’s bugging you, you only sort of notice it during that practice, and then it can progress to you start noticing it after practice. It doesn’t just go away right away after practice like it usually did. And you’ve noticed it for a good amount of time after practice.

And then it’s going to progress to now you’re noticing it multiple times throughout the day. It’s not just during athletics. It is before, it’s during, and it’s after. So it never really goes away. And then it’s going to slowly progress even further to that constant pain, sharpshooting almost, along the bone. And that’s when you get closer to that stress fracture.

That beginning area is going to be sort of shin splints. So making sure you’re treating your shin splints appropriately and doing the right thing so they don’t progress and get worse.

Interviewer: So is a stress fracture basically the bone developing cracks in it because of repeated force?

Travis: Yes, exactly. Anything where you’re just constantly sort of . . . it’s those impact forces on the ground. Also, you have to look at your frequency, intensity, and duration of athletics. And especially pre-season, that’s when we’re in that sort of stress fracture area and the concern for it. It’s more in the pre-season time because that’s when your body is getting back used to sort of those impact activities and different things like that. So not just chalking it up to, “Ah, it’s not much.”

And going to get those things evaluated, making sure they aren’t those stress fractures or fractures. Because that’s when you’re going to miss longer time from athletics. Going and getting an evaluation and sitting out for a week to let your body heal up, get rid of that inflammation process, and then you’re back into athletics, instead of letting it get to a full-blown stress fracture where you are eventually missing four to six weeks.

Thank you to University of Utah Healthcare and The Scope for providing this article. See their other articles here.

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