Telling the Difference between Shin Splints and Stress Fractures

If you’re a runner or participate in sports, you’re probably familiar with shin splints. Lower leg pain is not a stranger for most athletes, and it can be easy to dismiss the discomfort as yet another annoying flare-up of shin splints. But stress fractures are common among runners and other athletes as well, and dismissing a stress fracture can be a serious mistake. So, how can you tell the difference between a shin splint and a stress fracture? Here are a few ways to differentiate between them. If you suspect you have a stress fracture, be sure to visit an ankle and foot center in The Woodlands, TX.

Type of Pain

If you’re familiar with shin splints, as most athletes are, you know that they cause a tight, achy pain that radiates along the lower leg. It causes pain and tenderness along the entire length of shin bone and connecting muscles. A stress fracture, on the other hand, is more of a deep, throbbing pain, and it tends to be more localized.

Frequency of Pain

Shin splints will usually only flare up and cause pain when you’re running. In fact, many athletes only experience sharp shin splint pain while running at top speeds. Stress fracture pain will flare up much more frequently. If you’re feeling sharp pains while walking or hopping, it’s more likely to be a stress fracture than a shin splint.

Tenderness to Touch

Shin splints are caused by inflammation in the muscles surrounding the shin bone. Often, massaging the lower leg may cause some initial discomfort, but it can help to ease away the pain. With a stress fracture, putting pressure on the area will instead cause a sharp pain, and will not provide any level of relief.


Typically, shin splints are a temporary pain that ebbs quite quickly. While you definitely shouldn’t run through the pain of shin splints (this can lead to tears in the muscle), you will likely feel just fine when resuming your physical activity the next day. Stress fractures, however, don’t go away quite so quickly. If you’ve rested for a day or 2, and you still feel pain in the area when trying to walk or run, then it’s unlikely that your discomfort is caused by shin splints.

What to Do

Once you’ve determine whether you have shin splints or a stress fracture, it’s time to seek proper treatment. As mentioned above, a couple of days of rest is usually all you need for shin splints; applying ice and taking anti-inflammatory medication can also help reduce inflammation and any discomfort.

If, however, you believe you have a stress fracture, the best course of action is to visit a doctor as soon as you can. They will perform some imaging tests to diagnose your stress fracture. You will then need to cease athletic activity for an extended period of time (typically 8 to 16 weeks), and only resume exercise under your doctor’s instructions. When you do start exercising again, do so gradually.

If you’re experiencing lower leg pain and think you might have a stress fracture, contact a foot and ankle doctor in The Woodlands, TX.

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