What’s the difference between a stress Fracture and a shin splint?

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What’s the difference between a stress Fracture and a shin splint?

If you’re an athlete or a sports enthusiast, you’d know that the only other thing that’s worse than losing is being injured. The legendary basketball player Michael Jordan once said about sustaining injuries: “My body could stand the crutches, but my mind couldn’t stand the sideline.”

It’s that fear of missing out and “undoing” your personal fitness and physical progress that is probably more annoying than the pain of a sports injury. 

However, if you’re a physically active person, injuries are inevitable, so prevention and recovery are important in maintaining your optimum physical level. 

As we talk about injuries, it’s important to know exactly what kind of injury you have in order to know how to treat it. Let’s take the case of running. It’s considered to be one of the best forms of exercise as it uses your own body weight, requires natural movement of the human body and it is also quite accessible. Along with running, though, come two very common injuries linked to it: stress fractures and shin splints.

But the trickier part than the pain of both these injuries is trying to determine whether you have a stress fracture or a shin splint. Both injuries are quite similar, so the key is determining exactly what you have so you know what type of treatment is needed.

Stress fractures versus shin splints

The definition of a stress fracture

First of all, let’s define what a stress fracture is. According to Mayo Clinic, stress fractures are tiny cracks in the bone caused by repetitive force, often from overuse, such as repeatedly jumping up and down or running long distances. 

Stress fractures can occur almost anytime there is overuse of our bones, but they typically can be found in the lower extremities (legs and shins) because they are the result of weight bearing activities with heavy impact.

The definition of a shin splint

The term “shin splint” itself refers to pain along the tibia, or our shin bone—the large bone in the front of our lower leg. MedicineNet defines shin splints as an inflammatory condition of the front part of the tibia that results from overuse. In general, shin splints happen when the muscles, tendons and bone tissue around the shin bone become inflamed. Shin splints are commonly found in runners, gymnasts and dancers. 

What causes stress fractures and shin splints?

Generally, stress fractures and shin splints are caused by the same things, which makes it a little tricky for us to identify those causes. 

Both injuries occur when the leg muscles, tendons or shin bones are overtaxed from a sudden increase in physical training. Stress fractures and shin splints are both common in runners, dancers, gymnasts and athletes in sports that involve high-impact running such as tennis, basketball or track and field. When you use improper or overused footwear, you will likely suffer from these two injuries too.

They also occur when you suddenly increase the frequency, intensity and duration of your workouts. 

Stress fracture symptoms

The ultimate, sure-fire way of detecting a stress fracture is through an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). However, this is costly and not everyone has the time to take themselves to the hospital for something that starts out small. An MRI is likely needed when the injury itself is severe and will be used to distinguish between stress fractures and soft tissue injuries. 

Luckily, it is still possible to determine whether the pain you have is from a stress fracture without having to undergo an MRI. The key is to be vigilant in listening to your body.

The primary symptom of a stress fracture is that the pain is gradual. You don’t just wake up one day with a searing pain in your legs. It all starts with mild tenderness at a specific area or spot, and this pain usually decreases when you rest. There could also be swelling around the area as the pain gradually and exponentially increases. 

It is very important to keep track of increasing pain. Many athletes and runners are known to “run” or “train away’ the pain. This is quite dangerous because bones cannot repair themselves while you continue to increase the intensity, duration and frequency of your physical activity. 

Shin splint symptoms

With shin splints, the pain is located in the front of your lower leg, just between your knee and ankle. The pain normally spreads through that area over the shin bone (tibia), or over the muscles surrounding it. This pain usually develops after a physical activity. Oftentimes, you may experience a shooting pain in the front of your lower leg when you are running. This pain typically disappears when you stop running. Normally, you will not feel this pain when you are doing less strenuous activities such as walking, stretching or climbing up stairs. 

In some cases, there will be swelling of the lower legs and the entire area will be tender and painful when touched.

The one symptom that differentiates a stress fracture from a shin splint

The symptoms of a stress fracture and a shin splint may seem similar at first glance, but there’s one glaring difference that will allow you to determine which of the two injuries you have. With shin splints, the pain and soreness are often felt over a broad area, and it usually decreases after a warm-up. With a stress fracture, the pain is concentrated in a smaller location and the pain gets worse when you continue to run or perform physical activity.

Treatment for shin splints

One of the best-known immediate treatments for shin splints is the RICE method. This stands for:

R – Rest 

Once you feel the onset of pain on your shins, you need to immediately cease all physical activity and rest.

I – Ice 

Inflammation is the cause of shin splint pain and ice therapy is a known remedy to decrease this. Put an ice or a gel pack (ideally a flexible one) around your shins while resting. If you are using an alternative ice pack such as a pack of frozen vegetables, be sure to wrap this around with a cloth first. Ice the affected area every three to four hours and up to 20 minutes each time. Be sure to not expose your skin to ice for longer than 20 than this time as it may actually cause tissue damage. 

C – Compression 

Further reduce swelling and inflammation in the area by snugly putting a compression sleeve around your shins. The applied pressure on the affected area when using compression helps reduce swelling by restricting the flow of blood and other fluids to the injury. Be careful to not completely constrict blood flow to the area, though. Ice packs like Magic Gel’s Shin Splints Ice Pack Set come with adjustable Velcro straps so the pack itself can act as a compression sleeve. 

E – Elevate 

Try to get in a lying or sitting position where you can elevate your feet above your heart. Doing this will minimise swelling as it allows fluid to drain from the injured area. If this position is not possible, try to at least keep your shins at the same level as your heart. 

For faster recovery, ice massages are recommended. For an at-home ice massage treatment, simply fill a paper cup with water and freeze it. Peel back the paper cup from the top so you expose an inch or two of the ice, and slide this up and down your shins. This Shin Splint Ice Pack set by Magic Gel comes with a cryoball massager, which you can easily pop in the freezer and use for ice massage for your shins. 

Treatment for stress fractures

Stress fractures are generally a more serious injury than shin splints. If you suspect that what you have is a stress fracture, it’s advised that you consult your general practitioner as soon as possible. If your appointment is still a day or two away, you can do the RICE method above in the meantime. 

If the pain is still significant after doing the RICE method, you may take an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen to help relieve the pain. 

It normally takes six to eight weeks for a stress fracture to heal. Depending on how severe the fracture is, your doctor may recommend crutches for you to use while healing. During this time, it’s recommended that you completely rest your affected legs in order to recover faster. 

In some cases, stress fractures require surgical treatment, so it’s really important to consult a health professional if you suspect that what you have is indeed a stress fracture.

How to avoid stress fractures and shin splints

We all know that injuries are inevitable when you lead a very active lifestyle. However, prevention can lessen the damage or possible injuries to come. For both shin splints and stress fractures, the best way to avoid them is to do strengthening exercises around the shin area. Exercises that involve resistance and stretch bands are a great way to increase strength and flexibility. 

On top of this, it will be better if you ensure that you are wearing proper footwear, and be sure to pace yourself when increasing the intensity and frequency of your physical exercise. 

Are you currently suffering from stress fractures or shin splints? If you need further details about pain-relief in your leg, or would just like to share your experience, please contact us!

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