If your shin hurts while you walk or run — a common occurrence — you most likely have shin splints; you may also have a stress fracture or a serious condition called chronic compartment syndrome. While you probably can ignore occasional shin pain that seems to stem from increased physical activity, don't ignore intense pain or pain that increases daily. If that describes your shin pain, see your doctor.
Shin Splint Basics
When you have shin splints, some of the muscles along your shin — the bone located in the lower front part of your leg — sustain damage, according to the Ohio State University Medical Center. You can damage two different groups of muscles around your shin bone, although one type of damage — called a posteromedial shin splint — occurs more frequently to people who run or walk for exercise. This form of shin splints affects the muscles on the back of your shin, plus those on the inner edge.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Pain from shin splints can start on either the front outside portion of your shin or in your lower leg, just above your ankle. You may notice the pain first as your heel strikes the ground as you walk or run. It might appear when you first start walking or running, then seem to "wear off" as you warm up, only to return the next day in the form of muscle pain. Your doctor should be able to diagnose shin splints after taking a full medical history and examining the affected leg or legs.
To treat shin splints, you have to rest the leg or legs involved — and that means no running or walking. It's difficult for dedicated exercisers to lay off their training routines for several days or longer, but you need to do so or you risk doing further damage to the muscles in your shin. Try substituting another exercise activity that doesn't use your shin muscles, such as cycling or swimming, to keep up your level of fitness while you heal your shin. You might also want to replace your running shoes, particularly if they're worn, to make sure you have the shock absorption and cushioning you need to work out.
Although painful shins almost always indicate shin splints in runners and avid walkers, it's also possible that you have a stress fracture or chronic compartment syndrome. Bad shin splints can lead to stress fractures in your bones, which likely will require X-rays to diagnose. Meanwhile, compartment syndrome, which involves compression of your blood vessels and nerves, can occur in the lower leg and can cause weakness, swelling, decreased sensation and severe pain in the affected area. Compartment syndrome represents a medical emergency, and you may need immediate surgery to treat it, which is why it's crucial you your doctor and get an official diagnosis for your shin pain.