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Lower Leg Stress Fracture from Running

Shin Splints or Stress Fracture?

Sorry, sorry, sorry if you are reading this. Odds are you are suffering from some lower leg pain and I can’t empathize with you enough. Is the pain Shin Splints or a Stress Fracture? Here are some differences, tests and ways to correct either issue. Please remember: I am not a doctor and a doctor should be consulted in all situations.

How Do I Know If I Have a Stress Fracture?

The most correct answer is to have a bone scan (MRI, CT, etc.). X-rays alone don’t usually show stress fractures. Typically a stress fracture needs to begin healing before a calcium deposit can appear in an x-ray. Before going through the process, here are a few other considerations.

Difference Between Shin Splints and a Stress Fracture

  • Does your lower leg hurt when you aren’t running?

    Shin Splints usually hurt worst after a run. If treated with ice, stretching and strengthening, the pain subsides. Shin splint pain should NOT be felt in normal walking, stair climbing and other low impact everyday activities.

    Stress Fractures, alternatively, tend to worsen in pain as your run. The more stress placed on the lower leg, the more they hurt. The pain is felt when waking up, when going to sleep, when climbing stairs and when walking around the grocery store. In short, the pain is always there although it may attenuate throughout the day.

  • If you rub the bone, does the pain radiate vertically?

    Touching a Stress Fracture normally causes pain up and down the injured bone. Shin splints may seem like bone pain but are actually a tightening of the surrounding muscles. Rub the muscles between the tibia and the fibula, along the calf and around the lower leg. Are the muscles sore or is the bone generating the discomfort?

  • Can you jump on your leg?

    Though recommended to me by a doctor, this one scares me and seems more like a wive’s tale so please exercise caution. The test here is to stand on your injured leg and do a few single legs hops. If the pain is intense, the injury is a stress fracture. If not, it is probably shin splints.

How Do I Heal Shin Splints?

Shin splints can be cured using a few focused exercises and stretches. It is important to be consistent and vigilant in your rehab. Follow these Shin Splint Exercises for a speedy recovery. Please consult a doctor as needed.

How Do I Treat a Lower Leg Stress Fracture?

At this point, you should consult with a doctor. A doctor will recommend complete rest from running for typically 6-8 weeks as the stress fracture heals. It is important to focus on nutrition and protecting the lower leg from stress. A few studies have shown that anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin may interfere with the bone healing. Conversely a few studies have shown that low pulse ultrasound for 10 minutes per session, twice daily may help with bone growth and speed up recovery time. But you are a runner so you naturally want to know…

Best Way to Keep Running Fitness When Injured

Deep Water Running has proven to be the best alternative to actual running while injured. Fitness can be maintained without adding stress to the injured area. Pete Pfitzinger has written a great blog post on Deep Water Running which even includes a 9 week plan to maintain running fitness. What about deep water running gear? A future post will examine a few options and help you choose the best fit for you.

What other exercises or healing methods have worked for you? Share your comments below and help the running community learn from your experiences. In the meantime, healthy running wishes to all!

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