Often caused by overuse and repetitive force, stress fractures are tiny cracks in a bone. They’re most common in the weight-bearing bones of the legs and feet, and while anyone can have a stress fracture, people who place more pressure on these areas regularly (such as track-and-field athletes, for instance) are at higher risk.
There are ways to treat stress fractures, and for people at higher levels of risk, there are prevention methods that can be done.
Symptoms and Complications
Pain is the primary symptom in stress fractures. In some cases, you might barely notice this pain at first—stress fracture pain tends to increase with time. Tenderness will often originate in a particular spot and decrease during rest. In some cases, you’ll have swelling around the painful area.
If stress fractures do not heal properly, they can lead to chronic pain. Additionally, if underlying causes of the fracture are not addressed, you’ll be at higher risk for future stress fractures.
Causes and Risk Factors
Stress fractures are caused by repetitive force on bones. This can often result from increasing amount or intensity of activities too quickly—bones adapt gradually to increased loads, but if it’s subjected to large force without enough time for recovery, this can lead to higher levels of risk for a fracture.
Specific factors that can increase your risk of a stress fracture include:
- • Certain sports: People who participate in sports like track-and-field, basketball, tennis, dance or gymnastics are at higher risk.
- • Increased activity: A sudden increase in activity levels or intensity can lead to stress fractures.
- • Gender: Women are at higher risk for stress fractures, especially if they have abnormal or absent menstrual periods.
- • Food issues: People with flat feet or high, rigid arches are more likely to develop stress fractures. Old or worn out footwear can contribute to risk here.
- • Weakened bones: Conditions like osteoporosis can weaken the bones and make stress fractures more likely.
- • Previous stress fractures
- • Lack of nutrients: Eating disorders or lack of vitamin D and calcium can make bones more likely to sustain a stress fracture.
Diagnosis and Treatment
In some cases, it will only take a medical history and a physical exam for your doctor to diagnose a stress fracture. In others, imaging test like X-rays, bone scans or MRIs might be used to properly identify them.
The most important part of treatment for a stress fracture is rest from the activity that caused it. You may have to wear a walking boot or use crutches during healing. In most cases, the basic healing process takes between six and eight weeks.
It’s unusual, but in some cases, surgery will be necessary to ensure complete healing, especially if the fracture occurs in an area with poor blood supply. Athletes or laborers whose work involves the stress fracture site may choose surgery for a quicker return.
Preventing Stress Fractures
A few simple steps can help prevent stress fractures:
- • Within sports or activities, set incremental goals: make gradual changes rather than jumping into big ones.
- • Cross train: alternate activities to accomplish fitness goals. Add strength training and flexibility exercises for the best benefits.
- • Keep a healthy diet, including incorporating vitamin D and calcium.
- • Always use proper equipment, including up-to-date running shoes.
- • Immediately stop activity and rest for a few days if pain or swelling occurs.
If you have sustained a stress fracture, speak to your doctor, who can help with diagnosis and offer a treatment plan if a fracture is confirmed.
Our orthopedics practice has provided care for over 30 years. Our staff is trained handle a variety of issues, including sports medicine. We care for you and your family with the same state-of-the art techniques we use with BYU and Olympic athletes.
“Stress fractures.” The Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/stress-fractures/home/ovc-20232072
“Stress Fractures.” American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00112