Orthopedic Surgery

October 18, 2016

Everything You Need to Know About Identifying and Treating Stress Fractures


Stress fractures are a painful problem for active Americans of all age groups. While minor stress fractures may heal with rest, proactive diagnosis and treatment will help prevent more serious damage to the fractured area.

A common problem for athletes and others who engage in repetitive, weight-bearing activities, stress fractures are painful and often require significant time to heal. When rest does not provide relief, more focused stress fracture treatment options may be needed to ensure proper healing. If you suffer a stress fracture, you have a greater risk of experiencing another one. When you know the stress fracture symptoms and causes, you can seek proper treatment and take steps to prevent them from occurring in the future.

What is a Stress Fracture?
In most stress fracture cases, pain and fatigue are often the first symptoms noted. A stress fracture is an overuse injury that occurs when muscles become tired and unable to absorb the additional stress or shocks created by added repetitions or increased pressure. This stress is then transferred to the attached bone, causing a small crack to form. Although stress fractures can occur in multiple areas of the human body, the vast majority will occur in the lower extremities, including the bones of the lower legs and feet.

Who is at Risk for a Stress Fracture?
Stress fracture symptoms can affect people of every age group and gender, although active females often experience them more than males. This is often attributed to the difference in the amounts of bone mass between the two sexes, as well as other factors that include the potential for females to have an increased incidence of eating disorders and osteoporosis, both of which have been shown to negatively affect bone mass.

Both male and female athletes who participate in activities involving repetitive stress on the feet and legs are at higher risk. These higher risk activities include:

  • Track and field
  • Gymnastics
  • Tennis
  • Basketball
  • Football
  • Volleyball
  • Soccer

While stress fractures can occur in low-impact activities, such as golf, the incident rate is much lower due to less stress being placed on the feet and lower legs. Stress fractures can also occur in non-athletes whose occupations or activities involve repetitive, weight-bearing tasks. Examples of these careers include postal carrier or delivery jobs that require people to walk long distances while carrying a load over the course of their work day.

Can Stress Fractures be Prevented?
Most stress fractures occur when muscles become overloaded or fatigued and begin to transfer the stress load to the bones they support. One of the most important preventative strategies is to increase the demands placed on muscles in small increments, always allowing sufficient time for the muscle to adapt to the stress. For example, if you are an athlete who wants to add running to your training schedule, you should not attempt to immediately run five miles a day, even if that is your goal. Instead, begin by running one mile and slowly increasing the distance over several weeks until you reach your goal distance and maintain it without experiencing any pain.

In addition to incremental increases in activity, stress fracture prevention strategies should also include:

  • Eating a healthy diet that includes foods rich in the calcium, magnesium and vitamin D to ensure that hard working muscles and bones receive proper nutrition
  • Alternating activities – or cross-training – to reach fitness goals, including exercises designed to improve flexibility and strength
  • Making sure that shoes and other equipment are in good condition to avoid placing unnecessary stress on the legs and feet
  • Monitoring discomfort, pain, or swelling and being sure to rest and seek medical care to prevent more serious injuries and longer recovery times

How are Stress Fractures Treated?
Stress fractures can be difficult to diagnose, due to their small size. X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are all frequently used to successfully diagnose this injury. Stress fracture treatment usually consists of rest for minor stress fractures, but it may involve surgery for more serious and long-term injuries. If you are experiencing pain in the bones of your lower legs or feet that worsens with activity and seems to ease when you rest, you may be dealing with a stress fracture injury.

If you have a stress fracture and want to know more about your options for stress fracture treatment, contact Arkansas Surgical Hospital at 877-918-7020 for an appointment with one of our renowned orthopedic surgeons to learn more about your treatment options.

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