Stress fractures are small cracks in the bones that occur due to repetitive stress or overuse. These fractures typically affect weight-bearing bones like the tibia (shinbone), metatarsals (foot bones), or calcaneus (heel bone). They account for 20% of all sports medicine injuries.
These types of overuse injuries are common in:
- Athletes, particularly runners, dancers, and gymnasts
- Military trainees
- Anyone engaging in high-impact activities or who has a sudden increase in physical activity
Why Do Stress Fractures Happen
Stress fractures occur when the muscles become fatigued due to high-impact or repetitive weight-bearing activities, rendering them unable to absorb the shock of repeated impacts. The excessive forces are then transferred to the bone, causing tiny cracks.
Risk factors for stress fractures include:
- Overuse: Repeated impact and excessive stress on the bones without adequate rest and recovery can lead to stress fractures. This explains why more than 50% of all stress factors affect the lower extremities and are common in people who train intensely without allowing their bodies enough time to adapt and repair.
- Sudden increases in training intensity: If you rapidly increase the frequency, duration, or intensity of your workouts without allowing your body to adapt gradually, the excessive strain causes stress fractures.
- Poor technique: Incorrect form or technique while engaging in physical activities can strain specific bones excessively, increasing the risk of stress fractures.
- Medical conditions: Illnesses like osteoporosis and osteopenia weaken your bone structure, making you highly susceptible to microfractures.
- Inadequate nutrition: Lack of calcium and vitamin D weakens bones, increasing the risk of stress fractures.
Stress fractures treatment options include:
- Rest and immobilization: Rest allows the bone to heal and reduces the risk of further damage.
- Ice and compression: Applying ice packs to the affected area and compressing it with an elastic bandage reduces swelling, providing pain relief.
- Medications: Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or acetaminophen help manage pain and reduce inflammation. However, consult a healthcare professional before taking any medication.
- Physical therapy: Your doctor may recommend physical therapy sessions to help restore strength, flexibility, and balance.
- Orthotics and special footwear: In some cases, using orthotic devices (crutches, protective boots, and braces) or wearing supportive footwear with adequate cushioning and shock absorption alleviates stress on the affected bone, preventing further injury.
- Surgery: In rare cases, surgery is recommended for stress fractures that do not heal with conservative treatment or for fractures that have progressed to complete breaks. Metal plates and screws are used to stabilize the bone during the healing process.
- Lifestyle modifications: Your doctor will advise you to make certain modifications to aid recovery. This may include adjusting your training routine, incorporating cross-training exercises less taxing on the affected area, and improving your nutrition to support bone health.
Consult a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan if you are dealing with a stress fracture or suspect you may have one. Fill out the form below to schedule an appointment with one of the specialists at Spine Diagnostics.