Our bones and muscles are absolute troopers, supporting our body, protecting our organs, and putting up with all kinds of use and abuse. But once in a while, they cave in under the stress. Stress fractures are one such injury of the bones. When you subject a part of your body to repeated use, the muscles in the area wear down and are unable to absorb the shock. When they buckle, these muscles pass on the impact to the bone, which cracks or bruises, causing a stress fracture.1
Stress fractures are common in sports, particularly among field and track athletes, dancers, gymnasts, basketball players, and tennis players. Aside from sportspeople, those who have nutritional deficiencies or weak bones can also be troubled by stress fractures.
Stress Fractures More Common In Lower Limbs
Over 50 percent of stress fractures happen in the lower limbs. They are common in the bones on your foot (metatarsals) and can also occur in your toes, heel, your ankle, tibia, and hip.2 Stress fractures may also affect the upper limbs if there is repetitive strain there. For instance, if you play golf or tennis, your arms or ribs may be vulnerable while gymnastics may put your spine at risk of stress fractures. Compared to fractures in the upper part of your body, those in the thigh bone (femur), spine, some foot bones, and kneecap tend to be more complicated, with a higher chance of not healing well or of recurrent fractures.3
Pain Is The Main Symptom Of Stress Fractures
It can be difficult to tell when you have a stress fracture because it’s not really visible and any discomfort or pain may initially be very mild. However, pain in the injured area is the most common and predominant sign of a stress fracture. And there may be a pattern in how it develops and worsens when you have a stress fracture.
Mild Pain At First, Subsides With Rest
You may experience only minor pain initially and this tends to occur when you engage in physical activity centering around the area. For instance, there may be a nagging pain in the foot while running or dancing. The pain usually disappears completely when you rest.
Pain Intensifies Over Time And Occurs Even When Resting
Over time, the pain starts a tad earlier each time the activity is done. For instance, if you play football and have a stress fracture in the feet, you may initially feel pain well into a session or at the fag end of it. Over successive sessions, this pain may start within the first couple of minutes of the game. The degree of pain itself will worsen over time and the area will now hurt even when you rest.
“Pinpoint” Pain And Tenderness In The Area Of Fracture
When you touch the affected part of the bone, you will feel a localized pinpoint pain or tenderness.4 This could be in addition to the general ache you feel, say, in the entire foot.
If you have a stress fracture, you will have:
- Pain in the area you exert or exercise
- Pain that subsides with rest and reappears when you resume the activity
- Pain that starts a little earlier each time you exert the body part
- Pain that is initially mild but which worsens over time, occurring even when you rest
- Pain or tenderness when you touch the area
Swelling And Redness In Some Cases
A stress fracture need not always cause swelling. However, in some cases, you may see minor swelling and reddening where the fracture has occurred.5 6
What Can You Do About It?
If a stress fracture is left untreated, it can get worse and eventually cause the bone to disintegrate completely.7 Be wary of any pain if you have started a new sport or are overexerting yourself while training.
Treating a stress fracture mainly involves giving it sufficient time to heal. This might take around 6 to 8 weeks. During this time, you’ll need to put less weight on the fracture and rest. In some cases, a brace or cast may be advised. Cold packs and painkillers can help you deal with pain.8
Take Preventive Measures To Prevent Stress Fractures
Simple measures can help prevent a stress fracture:
- Stop exercising if you feel pain.
- Use proper running shoes and other sports equipment.
- When you start a new physical activity, start slow and gradually build up speed and duration.
- Have a diet with sufficient vitamin D and calcium to keep your bones strong.
- Alternate your training regimen with low-intensity activities so the bones and muscles get adequate rest in between.
|↑1, ↑2||Stress fractures. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.|
|↑3, ↑5||Stress Fractures. University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Authority.|
|↑4||Stress Fractures. University Of Washington.|
|↑6, ↑8||Stress Fractures. University Of Rochester.|
|↑7||Stress Fractures. American College of Foot & Ankle Orthopedics & Medicine.|