Stress fractures are very small cracks that develop in a bone. A stress fracture is somewhat of a subtle injury, because it does not come from one particular event, but from repetitive stress over a period of time. Many basketball players, distance runners, and other athletes who are involved in high-impact sports experience stress fractures. When muscles become fatigued through overuse, they will eventually be unable to absorb any more shock from repetitive impact. Once this happens, they begin to transfer that shock to your bones, eventually causing stress fractures. Since the lower leg and feet are some of the main weight-bearing bones in our bodies, they are the ones that most commonly become subject to stress fractures; in fact, studies show that over 50% of all adolescent and adult stress fractures take place in the lower leg.
So what are the signs of a stress fracture, and how can you tell if you have one? One of the most immediate ways to tell is if you begin to notice an increase of pain in your lower legs or feet, especially if you have just recently changed or increased your physical activity. Sometimes starting a new workout routine or increasing the intensity of your regular physical exercise can lead to stress fractures, especially if you attempt to do too much too soon. With stress fractures, the pain typically intensifies when you begin any high-impact activity and subsides when you’re at rest. In addition, the pain is often dull and persistent versus sharp and throbbing, and may be accompanied by swelling. The fracture may be getting worse if it takes less and less time for the pain to “kick in” after you begin an activity. Stress fractures can definitely be painful, but they will normally heal themselves with nothing more than a few weeks or months of rest.
The best way to diagnose a stress fracture is to visit a doctor and undergo a physical examination. Keep in mind that due to their small size, stress fractures can often go undetected by X-ray machines, so an MRI or other medical imaging techniques may be required. The best treatment for a stress fracture is to just simply rest while the bone naturally mends itself, which can typically take between 6 to 8 weeks or sometimes longer depending upon the severity of the injury. Be careful not to return to physical activity too soon, as this may exacerbate the injury and cause greater damage over time.