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Shin Splints or Venous Insufficiency?

If you’ve been feeling a dull ache in your lower leg(s), you may have wondered if it could be a symptom of venous insufficiency, which is often characterized by this kind of pain. But circulation isn’t the only cause—the common athletic condition shin splints is also accompanied by an ache in the lower leg(s). Here’s how to tell the difference.

Where is the pain located?

If the ache you’re feeling is specific to your shin bone, or tibia, the strong bone you can feel on the narrow front of your lower leg, it’s more likely that what you’re experiencing is stress fractures or shin splints. Shin splints can be anterolateral, affecting the front of the leg, or posteromedial, affecting the inner part of the back of leg, still along the tibia bone.

If the ache seems to be all over your lower leg(s), also felt on the sides, ankles, calves, and/or feet, there’s a good chance that the issue is related to blood not being pumped adequately back up to the heart, as in venous insufficiency.

What does the pain feel like?

If the pain aches and throbs along the tibia bone during physical activity, either subsiding with rest or continuing afterward, but doesn’t include any other sensations, you’ve probably got a case of shin splints.

If the pain aches and throbs but is also accompanied by a ticking feeling, a general ache not specific to the tibia, or sudden warm rushing waves, you can be sure that what you’re feeling is blood trying to move through the veins.

What is your level of physical activity?

If you are very athletic and engaged in sports such as running, jogging, cross country, hiking, soccer, basketball, football, or rugby, there’s a good chance that the pain was caused by stress or inflammation to the tibia, a frequent problem among athletes.

If you are only mildly physically active, just became active after a long break, or haven’t been very active at all, there’s less of a chance that you could have harmed your shin or tibia. One of the risk factors of venous insufficiency is a sedentary lifestyle, long periods of standing (but not moving much), or a lack of physical exercise. If this sounds more like your situation, the issue is probably venous in nature.

Does elevation help?

One of the quickest and easiest ways to alleviate the pain associated with venous insufficiency is to elevate the legs, laying down on the floor or a bed and resting your legs up a wall, allowing the blood to drain back toward the heart. Elevation doesn’t always eliminate venous pain, but it will almost always help.

Go ahead and give it a try. If the ache in your legs seems to lessen or go away, or if you can feel a warm rush as the blood flows the opposite direction, you’re probably dealing with venous insufficiency. If elevation doesn’t help at all, the problem could be stress fractures or inflammation in the shin, which wouldn’t be affected by elevation.