Watch Out for Stress Fractures!

Are you starting to notice annoying pains in your lower legs while running? Perhaps you’re a keen exerciser whose ambitious training regime is starting to cause swelling and pain in your feet? You may have stress fractures.

While stress fractures sound sinister, they’re very treatable when caught at an early stage. What’s more, they’re relatively common, with foot fractures and ankle fractures often affecting runners. To help you stay active and pain-free, we’ve put together a helpful guide to spotting, treating, and avoiding stress fractures. 

What is a Stress Fracture? 

Stress fractures are minuscule bone cracks that appear when people overuse certain body parts. For example, long-distance runners may experience stress fractures in the foot, hip, shin bone, or lower back when they train too vigorously or frequently. While repetitive motions represent a common cause of stress fractures, you may also develop these fractures due to bone-weakening conditions such as osteoporosis.  

Symptoms of stress fractures are often mild at first, meaning patients avoid seeking help until the problem becomes more severe. Over time, a stress fracture can cause bone displacement and may require surgery. As such, you must seek medical help when any of the following symptoms appear:

  • Pain that occurs during physical and does not go away during rest.
  • Pain that occurs during physical and appears to go away during rest.
  • Pain that gets worse when standing on one leg.
  • Pain, tenderness, or swelling around a bone.

While most stress fractures occur in the lower legs, they can occur anywhere in the body. 

What Causes a Stress Fracture?

Stress fractures can happen due to either environmental or internal factors, such as medical conditions. Environmental factors include:

  • Failing to follow proper sporting techniques.
  • Increasing your training schedule or intensity too fast.
  • Exercising on unfamiliar surfaces, such as gravel or sand.
  • Running on a sloped surface.
  • Exercising without supportive footwear. 
  • Carrying out repetitive motions required in sports such as gymnastics, dance, basketball, running, tennis, or basketball. 
  • Not consuming enough calories to keep up with your training regime.
  • Not days off to recover after training sessions.
  • Not consuming enough vitamin D.

Internal factors related to stress fractures include:

  • Having a body mass index (BMI) either above or below recommended levels. People on both ends of the spectrum may have weakened bones and be more prone to injury.
  • Growing older. As we age, our bone density deteriorates, meaning we become more prone to issues like osteoporosis. As your bones start to weaken, stress fractures become more likely. 
  • Being female and not having regular menstrual periods.
  • Foot problems such as tendonitis, bunions, blisters, or abnormal arches can put pressure on the tibia and hip bones. 
  • Medical conditions that may weaken the bones, such as osteoporosis.
Woman with a foot in cast to treat stress fractures

How Long Does a Stress Fracture Take to Heal?

Stress fractures usually take between six and eight weeks to heal, provided you catch them at an early stage. More serious fractures may take longer. 

What Factors Can Affect the Recovery Time for a Stress Fracture?

While it usually takes a few weeks to resolve a stress fracture, several factors can significantly affect the recovery time, including:

  • Age: Older people tend to find that their stress fractures take longer to heal. 
  • Overall health: People in good overall health tend to recover from stress fractures more quickly. People who smoke, drink high volumes of alcohol, have chronic illnesses such as osteoporosis, or are obese may find their stress fractures take more than eight weeks to heal. 
  • Health history: Stress fractures often recur, meaning those who’ve had stress fractures in the past are likely to encounter them again (often in the same area). If you have a long history of stress fractures, your bones may take longer to heal. Similarly, if you have a history of health problems or injuries, your recovery time may be longer than eight weeks. 
  • The severity of injury: Severe and lingering stress fractures may take several months to heal. In some cases, surgery is necessary to hold small bones together. 

How Can You Ease the Pain of a Stress Fracture?

For most people, the key to recovering from a stress fracture is to rest and prevent further recurrence. Here are a few tips to get you back on your feet as soon as possible: 

  • Rest: While it can be frustrating for athletes and avid runners to ditch their training regime for a few weeks, it’s the only way to prevent further injury. Try to enjoy your rest by putting your feet up and streaming your favorite shows!
  • Protect the fracture site: Protect the fracture site with a bandage and use crutches to keep weight off your leg or foot.
  • Cold packs: Pressing a cold pack against a stress fracture can reduce pain and swelling. 
  • Over-the-counter pain medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers will help reduce pain and swelling. 
  • Wear shock-absorbing shoes during exercise: Wearing shock-absorbing shoes is one of the best ways to prevent stress fractures from recurring. Don’t be afraid to splash a little cash on a high-tech pair of sneakers – your legs will thank you in the long run!
  • Run on softer services: Running on soft surfaces like grass (rather than concrete or gravel) will help reduce stress on your bones and prevent stress fractures.
  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist will help reintroduce you to low-impact activities that aid recovery. Many people with stress fractures (particularly sporty types) are tempted to return to their old routines too quickly. Physical therapy help can prevent this issue.
  • Change your activity to lower stress on bones: If you’re spending hours pounding the streets or getting involved in high-intensity sports, you may need to rein it in! Some people are more prone to stress fractures than others, so you must listen to your body’s needs. If stress fractures become a problem in your life, consider bone-friendly activities such as swimming. 
  • Wear a brace or cast: Braces and casts can help support your bone while it heals, or even prevent stress fractures from occurring in the first place.

Get in Touch With Richardson Podiatry Center Today!

Are you suffering from undiagnosed foot pain? If you suspect you have small foot fractures or ankle fractures, we’re here to help. Our expert podiatrists can get you the best treatment available! Get in touch today to schedule an appointment!