Stress Fractures – Causes, Symptoms and Recovery

Runner with stress fracture on tibia - Dr. Herrick J. Siegel
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What Are Stress Fractures?

Stress fractures occur when bones undergo too much strain too quickly. During exercise, bones constantly break down and rebuild. But excessive stress applied repeatedly outpaces the body’s repair capabilities. This causes micro-damage that accumulates over time into a stress fracture.

Stress fractures typically affect weight-bearing bones in the legs and feet. They account for up to 20% of sports injuries, especially in runners, basketball players, tennis players, and dancers. High-impact, repetitive movements like running and jumping place substantial force on the lower limbs.

Sudden spikes in high-impact exercise without rest are the primary cause. Bone tissues need time to adapt and strengthen when you increase activities. Stress fractures also occur more often in those with low bone density, nutritional deficits, and biomechanical misalignments.

What Are the Symptoms?

The main symptom is localized pain over the fracture site, typically worsening with activity and improving with rest. As the fracture progresses, you may experience:

  • Swelling, warmth, and tenderness over the bone
  • Trouble bearing weight through the affected leg
  • Pain at night or when resting
  • Limping

Seek medical care promptly if you have any symptoms of a possible stress fracture. Leaving it untreated raises your risk of a complete fracture.

How Are They Diagnosed?

Since X-rays often appear normal initially, your doctor will consider your risk factors and symptoms. Localized bone tenderness during the physical exam provides clues. They may order advanced imaging tests like an MRI or CT scan to confirm the diagnosis and pinpoint the location of microfractures not visible on X-rays.

How Are Stress Fractures Treated?

Treatment focuses on resting the injured bone to allow healing:

  • Avoid weight-bearing exercise on the affected limb for 6-8 weeks. Use crutches or a walking boot to prevent putting weight through the fracture.
  • Participate in non-impact activities like swimming and cycling to maintain fitness.
  • Over-the-counter NSAID medications alleviate pain and swelling. Apply ice for 15-20 minutes several times daily.
  • Keep your leg elevated when possible to reduce swelling.

Your doctor may recommend immobilizing braces, casts, physical therapy, calcium/vitamin D supplements, and rarely, surgery for severe or non-healing fractures. Most heal within 6-8 weeks with conservative treatment. X-rays are taken before resuming activity to ensure adequate bone healing.

What Is the Recovery Timeline?

Recovery time varies based on the location and extent of the fracture. You will likely transition from crutches to walking over 2-4 weeks as pain decreases, but the bone requires 6-8+ weeks to fully heal. Returning to sports too quickly often reinjures the area. Gradually ease back into training over 2-3 months under your doctor’s guidance.

How Can I Prevent Future Stress Fractures?

  • Increase training load slowly and include adequate rest days
  • Strengthen muscles through resistance training
  • Cross train to avoid overloading the same bones
  • Run on softer surfaces like tracks and trails
  • Replace athletic shoes regularly
  • Address risk factors like nutritional deficits and low bone density
  • Listen to your body and stop if pain arises

Seek prompt treatment for the best recovery. With an experienced orthopaedic surgeon like Dr. Herrick Siegel guiding your care in the Birmingham, Alabama region, you can overcome stress fractures and get back out there! Call Siegel Orthopaedics today.