By Rehan Iqbal
Stress fractures may occur in the bones of the feet or in the ankle and lower leg. Very often, stress fractures and bone spurs may be confused. In this article, we describe stress fractures and provide an overview of their causes and treatment. Read on to learn more.
What Causes Stress Fractures?
Stress fractures are often caused by overuse or repetitive use. They may also be caused by a sudden change in activity or circumstances. For example, if you suddenly increase your speed, the distance you are running, the number of repetitions in your workout or the type of footwear you use, you may put yourself at risk for stress fracture. Improper technique may also increase your risk of stress fracture.
Another cause of stress fracture is weakness in the bones. Women are often more at risk for developing stress fractures because they tend to experience osteoporosis and other bone density problems more frequently.
What Can You Do to Prevent Stress Fracture?
1. If you’re just starting out with exercise, go slowly. Build up gradually to attain your fitness goals. Pay close attention to your technique, and avoid exercising when you are experiencing problems such as bunion pain, blisters or any other malady that might interfere with your gait and balance as you walk, run or work out.
2. Avoid sudden changes. Be sure that the surface you run or exercise on is smooth and safe. Avoid changing suddenly from soft, yielding surfaces to hard surfaces or vice versa. If you have been using a treadmill indoors during winter, build up gradually to your outdoor exercise when the warm weather comes.
3. Eat a balanced diet. Be sure to eat foods rich in vitamin D and calcium and take a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement.
4. Keep all workout equipment in good shape. Don’t use damaged equipment, and don’t wear worn out running or workout shoes. Be sure that the shoes you wear provide proper support and shock absorption.
5. Add new activities gradually. If you are going to add activities to your workout or increase your running distance, speed or time, do it slowly. Add no more than a 10% increase weekly.
6. Add variety. Instead of doing the same workout every day, mix it up. When you vary activities, it builds overall strength and helps you avoid all sorts of injuries. It’s very often a good idea to do weight-bearing exercises one day and aerobic exercises the next.
7. Don’t neglect strength training. Weight-bearing exercise and strength training helps build up bone density. Stronger muscles support your bones better. This is especially important if your aerobic form of exercise consists a great deal of swimming, which can actually reduce your bone density.
8. Rest. Remember that rest is a very important aspect of fitness. Don’t overdo it, and if you experience any pain or swelling, take some time off and apply RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) protocol.
What are the Symptoms of Stress Fracture?
If you have a stress fracture you will notice that the pain develops over a period of time and becomes worse during any weight-bearing activity. If your pain goes away while you’re sleeping and then intensifies as your day wears on, it is likely that you have a stress fracture. Other indications of stress fracture include swelling at the site of the fracture (ankle, side or top of foot). The injury site may also appear bruised and be tender to the touch.
What Can You Do About a Stress Fracture?
Rest, ice, compression and elevation are always safe treatments for exercise related injuries. Avoid bearing weight on the injured limb. When you do bear weight on that limb, wear supportive shoes and use a walking stick or crutches if you need to.
When you are at rest, use ice packs to reduce the swelling at the site of injury. Apply the ice packs for no more than 20 minutes at once, and remember to place a towel between your bare skin and the icepack.
Use an elastic bandage to apply compression to the site of the injury.
When you are rest, be sure to elevate your injured limb so that it is higher than your heart. This will help reduce the swelling.
You can also take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or Tylenol to help reduce swelling and relieve pain.
If you do not get quick and satisfying relief from your symptoms, be sure to call your doctor and make an appointment for a proper diagnosis of your injury.
How Can the Doctor Tell if I Have a Stress Fracture?
When you see your doctor he or she will examine your injury and ask you questions regarding its onset, your level of pain, your general health and your medical history. This information lets your doctor know whether or not you might be overly susceptible to developing stress fractures.
Your doctor may order a number of tests including:
What Will Your Doctor Recommend?
If your stress fracture is minor, your doctor may simply advise you to continue RICE protocol and anti-inflammatory medications. He or she may also outfit you with crutches and perhaps a short leg fracture brace shoe.
For more serious stress fractures, your doctor may give you a cast to hold your bones in place and entirely remove stress on the injured area.
In very severe cases you may need surgery. Surgery for stress fractures usually involves inserting plates, pins or screws (internal fixation) as fasteners to hold the bones in place while you heal.
How Long Does It Take to Recover from a Stress Fracture?
Generally speaking it can take 6 to 8 weeks to completely recover from a stress fracture. Even if you feel much better much sooner, you should allow yourself a full two months’ time for the bone to knit and strengthen. If you rush back to exercise, you may re-fracture the bone, and it may never properly heal.
You cannot be sure that your fracture is completely resolved without a doctor’s examination. When you return to your doctor, he or she may perform another x-ray and/or a computed tomography (CT) scan to make certain your fracture has completely healed.
When the fracture has been healed completely, be sure to follow your doctor’s advice on returning to activity. Generally speaking, you should return slowly and carefully to build up strength and avoid re-fracturing your injured limb.