Stress Fractures

By Nancy Simpkins

A stress fracture is a small crack in a bone, occurring most often in the lower leg or foot. These fractures are usually caused by overuse, particularly among participants in sports such as tennis, running, gymnastics and basketball.

Bones break down and repair themselves in response to stress, and the muscles also act as shock absorbers to protect the bones. When the muscles become fatigued, extra force may be transmitted to the bones. If an athlete increases the amount or intensity of activity more quickly than the bones can rebuild themselves, a stress fracture will develop.

Poor nutrition that diminishes bone health can increase the risk of stress fractures, and having leg-length discrepancies, flat feet or high arches increases the risk as well. People with osteoporosis can experience stress fractures from activities of daily living.

The symptoms of a stress fracture are pain and swelling that increases with activity. Treatment includes rest, ice and pain relievers. Some experts recommend acetaminophen because non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines may interfere with bone healing. For severe stress fractures in the foot, a splint, cast, walking boot or crutches may be necessary, or a surgeon may need to insert a pin to hold the bone together. Patients recovering from stress fractures can benefit from physical therapy to learn exercises that improve strength and stability.