What is a Stress Fracture?


Every April since 1992, the Health Resource Network has celebrated Stress Awareness Month, where health care professionals across the country raise awareness about causes and cures for stress. Today, we’re talking about a different kind of stress – stress fractures. Stress is defined as a constraining force or influence, which can be placed on the body, the mind, or an object. In this case, we’re focusing on stress placed on the body.


What is a stress fracture?

Stress fractures are one of the most common sports injuries. A stress fracture is an overuse injury that occurs when muscles become fatigued and are unable to absorb shock and protect the bones as they usually do. When stress is placed on fatigued muscles, eventually the overload of stress is transferred to the bone, causing a tiny crack or stress fracture. Stress fractures most commonly occur in the weight bearing bones of the lower leg and foot.


What causes stress fractures?

Common causes of stress fractures include increasing the amount or intensity of an activity too quickly, changing activities to an unfamiliar surface, improper equipment, and increased physical stress. If certain conditions such as osteoporosis have weakened the bones, stress fractures may result from everyday activities. Athletes who participate in repetitive, high impact sports are usually most susceptible to stress fractures, such as tennis, running, gymnastics, basketball, or dance. Even folks who are not athletes can experience stress fractures due to a change or sudden increase in activity, like walking excessively on vacation or wearing a new style of shoe.


What are the symptoms of a stress fracture?
  • Dull, achy pain – usually brought on by activity and subsides with rest
  • Swelling and tenderness
  • Possible bruising
  • May not be visible on early x-rays


How are stress fractures treated?

If a stress fracture is not properly treated, the pain and fracture can become more severe and may eventually result in a complete break of the bone. Rest is the first and most important method to treating a stress fracture. It is important to stop the activity that caused the injury to relieve your pain and allow the fracture to heal correctly. Depending on the location and severity of your injury, your orthopedic surgeon will come up with a treatment plan that could include modified activity to reduce stress on the fracture, shoe inserts, walker boots or braces, or even casting. In some cases, surgery may be required if the fracture does not heal on its own. Once your stress fracture has healed and your physician has cleared you, it is important to return gradually to your regular activities.


How can stress fractures be prevented?
  • Start new activities slowly – gradually increase your time, speed, and distance.
  • Maintain a balanced and healthy diet, incorporating calcium and Vitamin D to help build bone strength.
  • Use proper equipment and replace old or worn equipment when necessary.
  • If pain or swelling occurs, stop your activity and rest for a few days. If pain persists, make an appointment with your orthopedic specialist.