Stress fractures are tiny hairline breaks in the bone. They tend to develop in the legs or feet of dancers, athletes, or military personnel who exercise to extremes when their muscles are fatigued or when their bodies are not yet conditioned to the activity level. Rest and physical therapy can help most stress fractures heal. Surgery is used in select cases.
Your leg contains two bones. The larger bone, commonly called the shinbone, is the tibia. The thinner bone on the outer side of the leg is the fibula. The fibula is a common site of stress fractures.
Stress fractures tend to occur in certain bones in the feet. Stress fractures commonly occur in the heel (calcaneus), top of the midfoot (navicular bone), and second and third metatarsals. The metatarsals are long bones in the forefoot.
High impact, overuse, or improper form during sports or movements cause stress fractures. Due to repetitive stress, the bones are not able to repair themselves. In some cases, the bones may be already weakened by disease, such as osteoporosis, and be vulnerable to fracturing.
People that begin a strenuous exercise routine before they are conditioned or train to extreme fatigue are at risk for stress fracture. Using improper form during exercise or sports or inadequate sports equipment and shoes can cause stress fractures. Dancers, military members in initial training, and athletes that participate in high impact sports are at risk for stress fractures because of jumping, running, and marching.
Women have a higher risk because of the effects of hormones on muscles and ligaments. Tall people, those with leg length discrepancies, and cigarette smokers also have a higher risk. Some people have an inherited predisposition for stress fractures.
Stress fractures cause gradual pain that becomes progressively worse with activity. Rest may relieve pain, although night pain is common. The top of your foot or outside of your ankle may become swollen, bruised, or tender.
If you suspect that you have a stress fracture, you should try to keep weight off your foot until you see the doctor. A podiatrist can diagnose a stress fracture by reviewing your medical history and examining you. You should tell your podiatrist about activities that may have contributed to your fracture.
An X-ray, bone scan or MRI may be used to create an image of your bones to confirm the fracture. Fractures typically do not show up on X-rays until later, so a bone scan or MRI, which are more sensitive, may be used.
Rest is the primary treatment for most stress fractures. Your doctor may prescribe medications to relieve pain. Depending on the site and extent of the fracture, periods of rest and activity modification can be from 4 to 12 weeks. You will need to use crutches when you walk to keep weight off your foot. A rigid soled shoe or removable fracture brace may be recommended. Foot fractures may require casting.
At the appropriate time, you may be referred to physical therapy for rehabilitation. Physical therapists can teach you exercises to strengthen and balance your muscles. Aquatic therapy is great for conditioning because the water eliminates the effects of gravity. Physical therapy modalities, such as cold therapy can help as well.
Surgery is used for select fractures that are severe or in areas that typically heal more slowly. Surgical hardware, such as screws and plates are placed internally to position the bones while they heal. Bone grafting may be used in some cases.
Recovery times depend on the extent of your stress fracture and the treatment you receive. Surgical treatments can require up to six months of healing time. Non-surgical treatments have a shorter recovery period. Recovery is an individualized process, and your doctor will let you know what to expect. As your condition improves, your doctor will increase your activity level.
You can help prevent stress fractures by wearing the appropriate athletic shoes for your activity. Make sure you do not overdo training or exercise. Rest, especially when your muscles are tired. Condition your body for “spring training” before participating fully in any sport. Stop smoking, and eat a healthy well-balanced diet.