Stress fractures are small breaks in your bones that are caused by overuse. When you overload your muscles on a regular basis with extreme exercise or other physical challenges, you push past the muscles’ ability to cushion shocks to the bone. This results in stress on the bone that leaves it with tiny hairline fractures. While stress fractures heal quickly with rest, they’re often ignored until they’re extensive enough that healing takes years or a permanent disability sets in.
If you notice a dull pain that seems to emanate from your bones specifically, you likely have at least one stress fracture. The pain feels worse when you’re using the limb or body part affected by overuse. It can make exercising or even standing in line at the grocery store seem impossible. For extensive fracturing, swelling may indicate the underlying inflammation. There are few other symptoms you can notice on your own, so most cases are diagnosed through X-rays and MRIs to pick up the fine lines of fractures in the bones. The fractures most commonly affect the legs and feet, but almost any bone in the body can develop a stress fracture.
While stress fractures are largely categorized as overuse injuries, there are many factors that can influence the risk of developing them. Sudden increases in physical activity, specifically high-impact activities such as running or jumping, can significantly raise the risk of developing a stress fracture. Additionally, regular use of ill-fitting or inadequate equipment such as shoes or orthotic support devices can increase the risk as well. These can have a detrimental effect on maintaining proper form, and cause a redistribution of the forces to areas that are more susceptible to stress fractures. Nutrition also plays an influential part in determining stress fracture risk. Calcium and vitamin D are essential for bone health, and a diet that is deficient in these nutrients can significantly increase the risk of developing a stress fracture.
Rest is the primary treatment for stress fractures. Taking weight off of the bone allows it to knit back together, but this can be downright impossible when you need months of rest and the fracture is aggravated by daily chores. Slings, splints, and other restriction devices can help immobilize an area so it heals faster. Shoe inserts and other supportive devices are also used to prevent the fractures from reoccur due to overuse in the future.
Given the multifactorial nature of stress fractures, there are many steps that can be taken to prevent them. When starting a new activity, it is important to make sure that you start gradually and make sure to take sufficient rest periods between sessions to acclimate properly to the change in activity level. Additionally, making sure that your shoes fit properly and are in good condition is essential in preventing overuse injuries such as stress fractures. Using proper footwear helps maintain proper form and can help prevent excessive distribution of harmful forces on susceptible bones and joints. Also, when exercising on a new or unfamiliar surface, it is important to go slowly and make sure that you acclimate yourself properly to its dynamics. This, coupled with the use of properly fitting orthotic devices can greatly reduce the chances of developing a stress injury as they can also correct your form and help reduce the effects of high-impact activity on your bones and joints. In addition, a diet high in calcium and vitamin D can help prevent stress fractures, as these nutrients are integral to maintaining adequate bone strength and integrity.