What is a stress fracture?

A stress fracture is a narrow fissure that develops due to overuse or repetitive, physically enduring activities on certain parts of the body. Because we hold most of our weight in our feet and ankles, these fractures most commonly occur in that specific region of our bodies.

Let’s discuss 4 important things to know concerning stress fractures to help give you a better understanding of what causes them, what their symptoms are, how to treat them, and how to prevent them.

1. What causes a stress fracture?

Stress fractures are most commonly seen in athletes that rely mainly on their feet and ankles for a specific high-impact sport they participate in, such as football, soccer, tennis, long-distance running, etc. These athletes use excessive amounts of force on their feet and ankles daily; therefore they are more susceptible to stress fractures.

However, many people besides athletes can be susceptible to stress fractures in their feet and ankles as well. Other causes besides high impact sports can include:

  • Depleted vitamin D and/or calcium levels.
  • A sudden change in activities such as an increase in high endurance exercise, or performing new job duties that involve a large amount of standing or walking without appropriate gradual break periods.
  • Flaws in physical techniques or training, relating to possible new workout methods.
  • Sudden changes in the surface of physical activity such as running on soft grassy areas to running on firm sidewalk or concrete.
  • Inadequate footwear such as shoes that are too soft or too firm that don’t provide good arch support.
  • Pre-existing foot issues, possibly including bunions or tendonitis, that can affect the ways in which someone walks or runs.
  • Diseases or conditions that affect bone strength and/or density.

2. What are the symptoms of a stress fracture?

A person experiencing a stress fracture of the foot or ankle will most likely feel pain as their first symptom. Any weight-bearing activities such as walking, running, or even standing can noticeably increase pain within the area. Some may also experience symptoms such as:

  • “Pin-point pain” or pain felt in the exact area of the fracture usually brought on by something as simple as touching the sight of the injury
  • Noticeable increase in swelling of the area
  • Bruising
  • Pain during every-day activities, even something as simple as walking
  • Subsiding pain during rest periods

3. How do you treat a stress fracture?

If you believe you may have a stress fracture, it is essential that you contact your doctor and follow any guidelines they may give you for treatment. Do not ignore the pain, untreated stress fractures can cause more pressing issues for you in the future. Stress fractures usually only take 6-8 weeks to heal, some treatments your doctor may recommend for you include:

  • Stopping the activity that led to the fracture, to avoid constant use that can cause even more damage.
  • Regularly applying ice or a cold compress to the fractured area for the first 1-3 days to decrease pain and swelling.
  • Keeping the injured foot or ankle elevated (or higher than the heart) when laying down to decrease swelling and unnecessary pressure by lowering blood flow to the area.
  • Taking anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen to help reduce pain levels and swelling.
  • Beginning strict usage of protective footwear such as a stiff-soled shoe, a wooden-soled sandal, or a fracture brace shoe to prevent any further damage to the injury.
  • Your doctor may suggest you needing a cast or fracture boot on your foot to allow the bones to heal in the correct position.
  • You may need to use crutches for the first couple of weeks to keep the weight off of the foot or ankle until it is healed properly.
  • In more severe cases, the stress fracture may need surgery known as internal fixation to heal fully. This surgery usually uses pins, screws, and/or plates to hold the injured bones together during the healing process.

4. How can I prevent a stress fracture?

As scary as a lot of the causes of stress fractures may sound, there are many preventative steps one can take to avoid this injury that requires little to no effort at all.

  • If you’re an athlete or you’re attempting a new workout regime, be sure to practice slowly at first, and gradually increase any time, distance, or speed involved in the new physical activity.
  • Be sure to include foods and beverages with high amounts of vitamin D and calcium in your diet to strengthen your bones.
  • Invest in quality and sturdy shoes made to protect and support your feet when running, walking, or standing for long periods of time.
  • Practice strength training, mainly focusing on the muscles to avoid early muscle fatigue and to aid in the loss of bone density common with aging.
  • Be sure to follow instructions on gym equipment correctly to avoid accidental misuse or injury.
  • Do research and practice any new technique you may be trying, to be sure you’re executing the technique safely and adequately.
  • Avoid repetitive workouts or physically demanding activities that continuously put stress on one specific area. For example make a workout schedule such as focusing on legs, back, then arms in one week, rather than just focusing on legs the entire week.
  • Call your doctor if you are experiencing persistent pain in your feet, ankles, or toes.
  • Be sure you’re giving yourself enough rest time and not pushing your body past its limits.

In conclusion, be smart about the kind of endurance you put your body through on a day to day basis and do your research before putting large amounts of physical pressure on yourself. When you take the necessary steps to avoid injury, you’ll never have to stress about getting a stress fracture.