Shin Splints vs. Compartment Syndrome: How to Tell the Difference

Posted on 
October 19, 2023

Most of us are familiar with the term “shin splints,” which refers to an achy, tender or sore feeling along the front of your leg that develops as you exercise. But the next time you jump to self-diagnose the pesky but non-emergent condition, it may pay off to take a closer look at your symptoms.

Shin splints can be confused with chronic compartment syndrome, also known as exertional compartment syndrome. Like shin splints, compartment syndrome is exercise-induced, but it differs by causing pain deep in muscles that can routinely prevent you from participating in a chosen sport or activity.

What is compartment syndrome?

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons describes compartment syndrome as causing swelling or bleeding within a compartment in the body. The AAOS notes that because our connective tissue, known as fascia, doesn’t stretch, the condition increases pressure on capillaries, nerves and muscles in the compartment. While compartment syndrome most commonly affects the lower leg, it can also affect the thighs, arms, hands, feet and buttocks.

If you’re suffering from compartment syndrome, you may experience:

  • An aching, burning or cramping pain
  • Tightness in the affected area
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Visible muscle bulging as a result of a muscle hernia
  • Difficulty moving or raising the foot on an affected leg

Additionally, pain and issues caused by compartment syndrome might follow a pattern, such as starting after a specific time, distance or intensity of your workout, progressively worsening as you exercise, and lessening or stopping completely once your workout ends.

You have a higher risk of developing compartment syndrome if you’re under 30 years old, overtrain your workout frequency or intensity, and participate in a sport involving repetitive impact.

“People who participate in activities such as running or marching are more likely to develop compartment syndrome,” says Dr. Thurman Alvey, sports medicine specialist at Forté Sports Medicine and Orthopedics.

Taking the lead in better understanding compartment syndrome

While the cause of compartment syndrome isn’t fully understood, Alvey is designing a research project to better understand why physicians appear to be treating more cases today than they did 10 years ago.

“It would seem that overtraining, poor flexibility, gait mechanics and growth cycles all play a role,” says Alvey. “Ultimately, none of those issues create tight fascia, but they definitely contribute.”

Examination and treatment

To diagnose compartment syndrome most accurately, Alvey uses a comprehensive testing process designed to reproduce the symptoms and when and how they happen.

“Most occur when running, so we utilize a treadmill-based test,” says Alvey. “If it is from biking, then a similar protocol is used with a stationary bike. Testing is taken into consideration on an individual basis.”

With a diagnosis, Alvey can implement a treatment plan to resolve pain, but typically surgery is the answer to release the compartments.

The team at Forté is standing by to provide an exam and a customized treatment plan so you can start feeling better, faster. Request an appointment online or call 317.817.1200.

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