Managing Stress Fractures: Causes, Symptoms, and Recovery

As we age, our bodies can either become stronger or weaker due to daily activities such as errands and exercise. When doing physical or repetitive movements, stress fractures start as bone bruises that eventually become small cracks in the bone’s surface. In this blog, you will explore the common causes and symptoms of stress fractures, and learn how to manage and recover from these injuries, including rest, nutrition, and rehabilitation exercises.

What is a stress fracture?

A stress fracture refers to a minor crack or hairline fracture within a bone. In contrast to acute fractures caused by specific traumatic incidents, stress fractures usually evolve gradually due to repetitive strain on the bone. They are frequently linked to overuse, vigorous physical activities, or repetitive strain on a specific bone.

What are the types of stress fractures?

Stress fractures often occur in weight-bearing bones of the lower body that support the body's weight during movement or standing. You may experience a stress fracture in your:

  • Lower leg (your tibia and fibula)
  • Foot (especially your metatarsals that connect your ankle and heel to your toes)
  • Heel

These are less common, but stress fractures can also affect bones in your:

  • Lower back
  • Hips
  • Hands and wrists

How common are stress fractures?

Stress fractures are common injuries for athletes and people who do physical work. Studies show that stress fractures make up around 20% of all sports injuries.

Causes of Stress Fractures

A stress fracture causes over time when something puts too much pressure on a bone and not have enough time to recover after physical activity. This usually starts as inflammation on the surface and is often seen 3 to 4 weeks after starting a new exercise routine or a new sports season.

This could also happen to non-athletes. For example, if you do not have a usual everyday walking routine, you might get a stress fracture if you walk more than you are used to on a vacation.

Here are some of the most common causes of stress fractures include:

  • Practicing or training too often without enough rest
  • Starting a new sport or physical activity without the right training, guidance, or equipment
  • Quickly increasing your activity level
  • Working or training without proper equipment

What are the stress fracture risk factors?

For athletes, having lots of pressure when using their bodies is more likely to have stress fractures. Here are some of the examples of stress fracture in different sports:

  • Running
  • Basketball
  • Tennis
  • Gymnastics (hand and wrist stress fractures)
  • Dance

There are some cases where certain health conditions can increase your risk of a stress fracture, including:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Bunions
  • High arch feet
  • Flat feet
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Overweightness or obesity
  • Eating disorders

Symptoms of Stress Fractures

In recognizing stress fracture pain, you may notice discomfort in a specific spot along your bone. You feel this discomfort after doing a physical activity and goes away with rest. Listed below are more of the most common symptoms of a stress fracture:

  • Pain that starts and gets worse during physical activity
  • Pain that doesn’t get better after stopping activity
  • More noticeable pain when resting.
  • Tenderness to even a light touch on or near your affected bone
  • Swelling

It's time to know and understand stress fractures management. First, let's learn about stress fracture diagnosis.

A healthcare provider will diagnose a stress fracture with a physical exam. They will check the part of your body that hurts. Tell them what activity you were doing when you first noticed pain and other symptoms. Your healthcare provider might also request you to do a couple of physical tests to understand where you might have a stress fracture, and how much it affects your ability to move normally.

What kind of tests can help diagnose stress fractures?

Your healthcare provider might use some of the following tests to take pictures of your bones:

  • X-rays
  • MRI
  • CT scan
  • Whole body bone scan

Second, let's know what are the stress fracture treatment options according to the severity of the condition. The most common treatments for stress fractures include:

  • Rest: Stop physical activity, especially the sport or activity that caused the fracture
  • Ice: Apply ice or a cold pack to your injured bone
  • Pain relievers: Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen can relieve pain and reduce swelling. Your healthcare provider might recommend over-the-counter lidocaine patches to numb the area around the fracture
  • Elevate your injury: Try to keep your injured bone propped up with pillows or cushions while you’re lying down
  • Compression: It helps reduce blood flow to your injured bone and reduces swelling. Apply a compression bandage or wrap around the fracture
  • Immobilization: You might need to wear a cast, boot, or special shoe to support your injury and reduce how much pressure you put on it
  • Crutches: Your healthcare provider may suggest you use crutches to take pressure off your injured bone
  • Surgery: Bones that take a long time to heal might require surgery to heal properly. In most cases, this involves supporting the bones by inserting a type of internal fixation, such as pins, screws, plates, or rods. Most of the time, the hardware does not need to be removed after the bone has healed. Occasionally, your surgeon may advise removal of the hardware; this is typically a quick outpatient procedure, meaning you go home the same day as your procedure.

Stress fracture Prevention

Look out for your bone health and injury prevention with these steps:

  • Stop exercising or training as soon as you feel pain.
  • Warm-up and cool down before physical activity.
  • Wear the right equipment for all sports and physical activities.
  • Follow a diet and exercise plan that is healthy for you.
  • Visit a healthcare provider as soon as you notice pain or other symptoms.

How long does the recovery from stress fractures take?

Most people need to rest for at least a few weeks after experiencing a stress fracture. You might need to avoid sports and other physical activities for a few months.

As long as you can feel pain, the bone is still fragile in that area and could break again in the same place. It usually takes six to eight weeks for stress fracture healing time. Stop the activities that caused the stress fracture while you’re healing.

Your healthcare provider will tell you how long you need to take a break from playing sports or working out.

What is the impact of nutrition on stress fracture recovery?

According to studies hormones, genetics, and diet, can play a role in causing stress fractures, which may be a factor in why women experience them more often than men. Some of the other risk factors include low body weight, low bone mineral density, menstrual irregularities, low dietary calcium intake, and even a history of stress fractures.

We recommend intakes of foods that are enriched with calcium are whole or skim milk and have servings of dairy products per day for a reduced rate of stress fracture. You should consume foods with Vitamin D like salmon, tuna, and egg yolk.

Are there rehabilitation exercises for stress fractures?

You learned in the previous parts of this blog that you can have stress fractures because of overuse of the bone and get worse with continued use. Even so, active people, athletes, and people who have active lifestyles can still do exercises if they have a stress fracture. Here are some of the rehabilitation exercises you can do:

  • Calf wall stretch (back knee straight) - Stand facing a wall with your hands on the wall at about eye level. Put your affected foot about a step behind your other foot. Keep your back leg straight and your back heel on the floor, then bend your front knee and gently bring your hip and chest toward the wall until you feel a stretch in the calf of your back leg. Hold the stretch for at least 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 2 to 4 times.
  • Marble pick-ups - Put some marbles on the floor next to a cup. Sit in a chair, and use the toes of your affected foot to lift one marble from the floor at a time. Then, try to put the marble in the cup. Repeat 8 to 12 times.

To our athlete readers, we know that some of you experience overtraining and stress fractures might be a regular occurrence in your body. You can discover tips and guides on how to take care of your body to minimize stress fractures and not undergo to worst-case scenario.

Stress fracture in runners

Running has many advantages, athlete or not, with cardiovascular and skeletal health. However, with poor training and techniques, the provided risk factors that you read earlier can result in developing stress fractures. Healthcare providers and physicians remind that runners may benefit from cushioned sneakers, interval training, and vitamin/calcium supplementation for stress fracture prevention.

What is the importance of proper footwear in preventing stress fractures?

When engaging in physical activity, it may be tempting to wear your favorite shoes, but it's important to choose appropriate footwear. This limits the amount of stress on foot and leg bones, possibly preventing a stress fracture.

Tips for returning to exercise after a stress fracture

We know how hard it is to get back from your daily routine of exercise after getting a stress fracture. Here are some tips you can do:

  • Take a break
  • Take it slow
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Consider seeing a physical therapist - the role of physical therapy in stress fracture recovery is very valuable. They are movement experts. They help people recover strength, movement, and flexibility, and identify risk factors for future injury.

Now that you have learned all about stress fractures, the common causes and symptoms, and how to manage stress fractures management. You can add this to your list -- the Ice Grip. This featured product has multiple types of products that can help in different body parts. This includes the ankle, shin, knee, and elbow. We also have Ice pods that are easy to insert in different products. 

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