Stress fractures are tiny cracks in a bone.
They can be caused by the repetitive application of force, such as repeatedly jumping up and down or running long distances.
A common misconception is that only active people, like runners, are susceptible to stress fractures. Anyone can experience them, said Erica Stoeger, APNP, ThedaCare Physicians-New London. For instance, those starting a new exercise program are at risk of stress fractures if they do too much too soon. “Stress fractures can also arise from normal use of a bone that's been weakened by a condition such as osteoporosis,” said Stoeger.
Stress fractures are most common in the weight-bearing bones of the lower leg and foot. “At first, pain may be barely noticeable, but can get worse with time,” said Stoeger, noting tenderness can originate from one spot but decrease during rest. “There might also be some swelling around the painful area.” Stoeger said the bone needs time to heal. “This may take several months or even longer,” she said.
In the meantime:
- Rest: Stay off the affected limb until cleared by a doctor to bear normal weight.
- Ice: To reduce swelling and relieve pain, ice the affected area for 24 to 48 hours. For pain, use a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin. The doctor might recommend a splint, cast or boot to immobilize the affected area.
- Use proper footwear: Make sure shoes fit well and are appropriate for the activity. Consider arch supports for shoes.
- Resume activity slowly: Slowly progress from non-weight-bearing activities like swimming to usual activities. High-impact activities, such as running, should be resumed on a gradual basis with careful progression of time and distance.
- Get proper nutrition: Include plenty of calcium and nutrients to keep bones strong.
See a doctor if the pain becomes severe or persists, even at rest. Very severe stress fractures that won’t heal on their own may require surgery.