A stress fracture can be very painful and inconvenient for an active person. It is defined as a small crack in the bone, and sometimes severe bone bruising. If they go unchecked, stress fractures can lead to further injury, so it’s important to know the symptoms and the causes in order to protect your feet from further damage.
The Causes of Stress Fractures
Usually caused by overuse or repetitive activity, stress fractures are very common in athletes—especially runners or those participating in running sports like soccer. Even people with very healthy bones can experience a fracture when they partake in frequent and repetitive movements. This is why athletes, who practice skills and drills regularly, are most at risk. Most high-impact sports are at risk for stress fractures due to the intense practice schedule and the constant need to push the body that much further for competitive reasons.
On the other side of the coin, those with very weak bones can experience stress fractures. This includes those with osteoporosis and other reasons for bone fragility. If a bone does not have enough density to uphold during normal daily impact, a fracture can occur.
Shoes can also be a stress fracture culprit. Whether it’s high heels or old, ill-fitting shoes, various types of footwear can put you at risk of injury. Those with foot deformities can also experience a stress fracture, including those with severe bunions.
Any bone in the foot or ankle can be affected by a stress fracture, including:
- The metatarsals (connectors of toes to the foot)
- The calcaneus (heel bone)
- The navicular (near the ankle)
- Any bone that makes up the ankle joint including the tibia and fibula
The Symptoms of a Stress Fracture
There are telltale signs of a stress fracture that will help you know if you have one. Of course, the most obvious one is persistent pain. Other symptoms include:
- The pain subsides when the foot is rested.
- Pain that increases during normal, non-stressful activities.
- There is obvious swelling on the top of the foot or outside of the ankle.
- The fracture site is tender to the touch.
- There is visible bruising.
A stress fracture will almost always cause pain at a very specific location whenever pressure is placed on it.
Diagnosing a Stress Fracture
There are a few different ways to diagnose a stress fracture. First is a physical examination. It is very important that you see a doctor if you even suspect you have a stress fracture, as ignoring it can lead to the bone breaking completely. Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and your regular activities. They may also ask you about medications and diet. The doctor will then examine your foot looking specifically for points of pain and applying pressure to them. Pain response is the most common way to diagnose a stress fracture.
Your doctor might also confirm the diagnosis through imaging such as X-rays. While it can be helpful to get imaging done, it is not a good diagnostic on its own since tiny cracks can be difficult to see via X-ray. If in fact the crack cannot be seen, your doctor might order an MRI.
Stress Fracture Treatment
There are a few different ways to treat a stress fracture, including both surgical and nonsurgical measures. The easiest ways to heal a stress fracture include:
- Medication. Anti-inflammatory medications can help with the pain.
- Crutches. Crutches keep the weight off the injury and can help with both healing and pain management.
- Modified activity. For approximately six to eight weeks, you may need to prevent any physical activity that causes you pain or places further stress on the injured area.
- Protective footwear. Your doctor might suggest sturdy footwear to help prevent further injury during your healing process. Brace shoes are available through a podiatrist.
- Cast. While not always appropriate for a stress fracture, some cases do warrant the doctor to apply a cast to keep your bones in a fixed position. This is usually the treatment when the bones on the outer side of the foot are injured.
Surgical treatment is sometimes needed if a stress fracture is severe or you are unable to keep weight off of it for whatever reason. Surgery usually involves supporting bones through an inserted fastener. Also known as internal fixation, pins, plates, and/or screws are placed into the foot to hold it together while it heals.
We’re Here to Help
If you are in pain and suspect a stress fracture, the doctors at Austin Foot and Ankle Specialists may have the answer for you. We are well-versed in the causes and treatments of stress fractures, and we are ready to help you. Contact us today for an appointment.