This content is brought to you in partnership with OrthoCarolina, one of the nation's leading orthopedic practices with offices across the Southeast.

If you're a runner, chances are that you know the feeling. You're just minding your own business, getting a few miles in, when all of a sudden you experience a painful sensation along your shinbones. You're suffering from shin splints -- but why? What brought them on, how do you alleviate the pain, and how can you avoid them in the future? 

We spoke with Gary Schneider, a physical therapist at OrthoCarolina, to find answers to all of your questions about shin splints. 

What actually ARE shin splints?

We know that they hurt and... that's about it. So, what's the medical terminology for shin splints? And what's actually happening in your shins when you experience them?

"Shin splits -- medically referred to as Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome -- are the irritation of the shin area, usually due to overuse in loading activities -- like running or jumping," Gary explained. "There are some more specific definitions out there, but the truth is that there is not one structure that we can point to and say, 'That’s exactly where shin splints occur.' You can just think of it as irritation of the muscles, tendons, fascia, and bone (tibia) in the shin area."

But how do you know if the shin pain you're experiencing is, in fact, shin splints, and not something worse?

"Shin splints are a different scenario than a tibial stress fracture, which presents a bit more risk down the line," Gary said. "A general way to tell the difference is a stress fracture usually elicits a pinpointed spot that hurts, where shin splints are more of a general area of pain. But the best way to get a more accurate guide as to what is going on is to see a medical professional, especially if you’re aspiring/training to run for long distances (like a half or full marathon) and aren’t just running for exercise."

How do shin splints occur?

Shin splints occur when you place more demand on your shins than they were ready for. So basically, when you run or jump more than your shins can tolerate. But... how do we know how much the shins can tolerate when we are running?

"It’s a great question and there is not a straightforward answer," Gary admitted. "The best way I know to explain this is to listen to your body and ease into an activity more slowly than you might think."

Gary also recommended giving yourself days off between runs. If you aren’t feeling great on any given day, he suggested that you run a little less than you planned (but don’t let it stop you from running at all!). He also recommended running on different surfaces and on different routes to give your shins a break. "Let your body ease into the activity and build up the strength necessary to handle the demands of running," he said.

What can you do to prevent shin splints from occurring?

"I wish there was an easy answer," Gary said. "The best way to prevent shin splints is to improve the efficiency of your running technique. Not saying inefficient runners will get hurt and efficient runners will never be injured, but shin splints can occur due to weakness or asymmetry somewhere in the foot, leg, thigh, hip, lower back, or even upper back."

Gary said that really the only way to know if you're experiencing such weakness or asymmetry in your body is to see a physical therapist that routinely works with distance runners or a running coach with some sort of medical background or training.

"I realize this option may be more expensive on the pocketbook and weekly calendar, but shin splits is a tough situation to handle," he said. "There are common patterns that people who battle shin splints display, and but it is impossible to know if that applies to you without having a professional check it out."

Learn More About Building Strength & Protecting Your Body From the Experts at OrthoCarolina  

Whether you've recently experienced an injury, need help with recovery after tough workouts, or are simply experiencing chronic pain and need help managing it, OrthoCarolina can help. Make an appointment at a location near you to start getting the treatment you need.