A stress fracture is when a tiny crack (or cracks) develops in the bone, usually in the lower leg or foot, caused by repetitive force. Repeatedly jumping or running on a hard surface, such as tar or concrete, can cause a stress fracture.
Even though the most common bones at risk of sustaining a stress fracture are the femur, tibia, fibula, and feet, any bone can sustain a fracture, depending on where there is repetitive high impact applied. For instance, a baseball pitcher can obtain a stress fracture in their shoulder, or a tennis player can get one in their elbow.
These fractures can also develop from the use of bone weakened by osteoporosis. Therefore, women tend to be at greater risk of having stress fractures. They are not only susceptible to osteoporosis but also to poor nutrition, eating disorders, and amenorrhea. The decreased bone density increases the risk of a stress fracture.
The bone in one’s body adapts gradually to increased loads through remodeling, which is a normal process that speeds up when the load on the bone increases. During remodeling, the bone tissue is destroyed and rebuilt. Bones exposed to unusual force and not given enough time for recovery, will resorb cells faster than the body can replace them, which makes you susceptible to a stress fracture foot or lower leg.
Stress Fracture Causes
Besides women being at a higher risk of stress fractures, people who are also at risk of developing stress fractures are track and field athletes and military recruits. However, it is possible for anyone who has started a new training program that goes too hard too fast to get a stress fracture.
Certain high-impact sports can also cause these fractures, such as volleyball, gymnastics, and running. The repetitive impact on the weight-bearing bones of the foot and lower leg striking on hard surfaces causes trauma and muscle fatigue. The risk is especially high if you’re not wearing the correct shoes, don’t have good muscle strength, or take adequate rests between workouts.
Stress Fracture Symptoms
The stress fracture symptoms may be unnoticeable at first, with hardly any pain or inflammation. It could simply be a dull ache in the affected area, but if ignored, can become very painful. Over time, the pain will get worse, and the tenderness of the area will start at a specific spot and then decrease during rest times.
You may find that there is pain in your foot or lower leg during training, but then it alleviates when you aren’t training. There may also be some swelling in some cases. It is imperative to treat a stress fracture with immediate effect because if not treated with rest and some other treatments, the whole bone could become fractured all the way through.
There are several risk factors for stress fractures which can include the following:
- A high longitudinal arch of the foot.
- Amenorrhea or menstrual irregularities in female athletes.
- Leg-length inequality.
- High weekly training mileage in runners.
Stress Fracture Treatment
If you have noticed that you may have a stress fracture because of one of the above causes – training too hard, too fast, or repetitive impact on your legs or feet, then the best treatment is rest. You could take a break from high-impact exercise routines such as running and replace them for a few weeks with lower-impact exercises like swimming or cycling.
It will allow enough time for the bone to heal. It’s not advisable to push through the pain and continue with training as the fracture will enlarge and could become a chronic injury that may never heal completely.
Here are a few stress fracture treatment recommendations after resting:
- Replace worn-out shoes.
- Perform rehabilitation exercises.
- Ice the injured area.
- Return to training gradually.
If the pain becomes severe, or if there is pain during resting times or at night, it is advisable to see your doctor.
How to Prevent a Stress Fracture
- Wear the correct footwear according to the type of training.
- Eat a well-balanced diet and ensure you add calcium-rich foods to your diet, especially if you are a female athlete.
- Slowly Progress when starting any sport or training program; gradually increase your intensity, time, and running mileage.
- If pain or swelling begins, immediately stop the activity and rest for a few days.