The difference between shin splints and stress fractures
Bone stress injuries account for 20% of orthopedic clinic visits. Two common bone stress injuries are shin splints and stress fractures, and it’s important to understand the difference between them to get the appropriate care. Certified athletic trainer Jenny Dalland explains the differences and how they are treated.
What are bone stress injuries?
Bone stress injuries happen when the body is unable to keep up with the demands of an activity due to repetitive trauma to muscles, bones and joints.
Running, jumping and walking are important for bone rebuilding and remodeling, but when the load becomes too much, the bones weaken and break down. These injuries are often chronic and are prevalent among runners and gymnasts.
There are many factors that contribute to bone stress injuries, including:
- Training errors
- Improper techniques
- Muscle imbalances
- Poor footwear
- Nutritional deficits
- Prior stress-related injuries
What is the difference between shin splints and stress fractures?
Shin splints are caused by micro trauma in the bone lining.
Symptoms of shin splints include:
- Pain generalized to the lower third of the shin
- Pain that increases with activity
- Pain that resolves after the activity has stopped
Shin splints can be an indicator that an athlete is doing too much too fast and, if not treated, the symptoms will intensify and could progress into a stress fracture.
Stress fractures are caused by repetitive stress to a bone without adequate recovery, causing it to weaken and create tiny cracks. Any bone can have a stress fracture, but they happen most often in the feet and the lower legs.
Symptoms of stress fractures include:
- Pain localized to a specific spot on a bone
- Pain that is severe and worsens with activity
- Pain that lasts throughout the day and night
An X-ray or MRI scan is needed to diagnose a stress fracture. Seek medical attention if a stress fracture is suspected. If left untreated, it can progress to a full fracture.
How are shin splints and stress fractures treated?
Both injures signal that an athlete is overloading their system, and they should stop or reduce the activities causing the pain. For shin splints, the athlete can continue modified activity but will need to stop if their symptoms continue. For stress fractures, complete rest from impact activities is typically required.
After a period of rest, restoring motion and strength are necessary for a full recovery. Sanford Sports offers footwear modifications, individualized exercise programs, gait mechanics and training management to help prevent reoccurring injuries.
Contact Sanford Sports physical therapy if you suspect a stress-related injury.