Stress fractures are small cracks which are caused in your bones that occur when overly tired muscles can no longer absorb the shock of repeated impact. When this happens, the forces are transferred to your bones further causing stress fractures. Stress fractures are most commonly found in weight-bearing bones in the foot, shin and ankle.
What causes stress fractures?
The major cause of stress fractures is overuse. They are especially common in athletes who participate in high-impact activities, like basketball, gymnastics, tennis, and long-distance running.
They can also occur if you are living a relatively sedentary lifestyle and suddenly start doing physical activity, for example, suddenly spending a lot of time walking around in the city when you don't normally or starting to run.
This happens because your muscles are not yet trained to absorb repeated shock. Basically, doing "too much too soon" can lead to stress fractures.
Teenagers who are still growing are at risk because their bones may not yet have fully hardened. Individuals with weakened bones from conditions like osteoporosis are also at risk.
Outside factors may also contribute to stress fractures. This includes poor training or technique when performing exercises. Poor exercise equipment like footwear can also lead to stress fractures, such as shoes that have worn cushioning or not enough foot or arch support.
What are the symptoms of stress fractures?
Stress fractures are linked with gradual pain that increases at the time of weight-bearing activity. The pain may decrease with rest or even go away entirely when you aren't doing the activities that cause pain like running, walking or jumping.
There may also be swelling on the top of the foot, around the ankle or the shin. The area of the stress fracture may feel tender to touch, and in some cases bruising may be present. Usually, you might feel a dull pain with sharpness with each step.
What is the treatment for stress fractures?
Your doctor will often suggest that you stop the activity that is causing you pain, advice you to use cold therapy, and wear a walking boot based on the severity of stress fracture.
- Cold Therapy - Apply ice to the injured area to help in reducing pain and swelling.
- Anti-inflammatory with caution - Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and aspirin can be used to alleviate pain however, they can also inhibit bone healing. Consult your doctor.
- Recovery Time - Generally stress fractures take around 6 to 8 weeks to heal, and it is normally suggested to switch to non-weight bearing activities like swimming and biking. Make sure you consult your doctor for which activities are appropriate for your recovery.
For more serious stress fractures, surgery may be required. A fastener will be kept in the bones to hold them together during the healing process. However, most fractures will heal on their own with rest and time, and surgery is not usually required.