Is My Leg Pain Shin Splints or Something Else?

What are Other Causes of Leg and Tibia Pain?

A woman with a hurt leg at a running race.
Your leg pain may be shin splints, but it may be something else. Steve Debenport/Getty Images

Is pain in the front of your leg shin splints or sciatica? (Or could it be something else altogether?)

Shin splints, or medial tibial stress syndrome, can be a painful condition that limits your ability to walk or run.  The condition, marked by sharp or dull, aching pains in the front of your shins, often seems to come on for no apparent reason while walking or running.

Physical therapy for shin splints involves managing the inflammatory process in your anterior tibialis muscle in the front of your shin and working to change the bio-mechanical faults that may be causing your shin splints.  While there are things you can do initially to manage the problem, it is a good idea to check in with your physical therapist to thoroughly analyze and assess your condition and start on the right path of treatment for your shin splints.

Sometimes conditions besides shin splints can be causing your leg pain.  That is why it is important to visit your doctor and physical therapist to ensure you have the correct diagnosis for your leg pain.  An appropriate diagnosis means that treatment will be properly focused as well.

If you develop leg pain and think it may be shin splints, you may be right.  But here are a few other things that may be causing your pain:

  • Tibial Stress Fracture.  A tibial stress fracture often goes hand in hand with shin splints.  Tibial stress fractures occur when you over stress your shin bones and do not allow enough time for them to recover after vigorous exercise.  Stress fractures often occur after a significant increase in exercise or training load with no increase in the rest and recovery phase of training.
  • Sciatica.  Sciatica is a painful condition that comes from your low back and is an irritation of your sciatic nerve that arises from lumbar levels 4 and 5 and sacral level 1 in your spine.  The sciatic nerve is a big nerve that communicates with many different areas of your upper and lower leg.  Pain in your leg can occur without accompanying low back pain, so your shin pain may really be sciatica coming from your back.  What's the main difference between sciatica and shin splints?  Shin splints is typically worse with walking or running, while sciatica is typically worsened by sitting with poor posture.  A word of warning: shin pain that is accompanied by significant weakness in your anterior tibialis muscle (a condition called foot drop) requires immediate medical attention.
  • Compartment Syndrome.  Compartment syndrome is pain in your lower leg that occurs when blood fills the muscles of your leg faster that it can escape.  This makes your leg muscles feel tight, tingly, or painful and usually occurs with exercise and activity.  Since shin splints and compartment syndrome are both brought on or worsened by exercise, it is a good idea to check with your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.
  • Posterior Tibialis Tendonitis.  Shin splints is caused by irritation of your anterior tibialis muscle and its attachment to your shin bone.  There is another muscle called the posterior tibialis that is located behind your shin that can become irritated and painful.  When this happens, pain is usually felt on the inner part of the back of your leg. With acute and significant cases, your pain may be more diffuse.  This may cause you to feel pain in the front of your shin and lead you to believe that you have shin splints.

If you develop pain in the front part of your lower leg that occurs with walking or running, you certainly may have shin splints. There may be other causes of lower leg pain, so a visit to your doctor to check things out is recommended when leg pain strikes.  Once a proper diagnosis is made for your condition, the correct treatment can be started and you can be on the road to a speedy recovery.