The difference between a stress fracture and a fully broken bone is like the difference between a cup with a cracked surface and one that has shattered. You can still technically use the cracked cup, but it would be foolish to do so normally until it is repaired. Likewise, a surface cracks in a bone must also be treated with great care.
A Sign to Slow Down
You might think of your bones as permanent and unchanging structures, but they are in a constant cycle of breakdown and renewal. As old bone tissue is worn down, new bone develops to replace it. Normally, your bodies are conditioned well enough to run this cycle smoothly to our needs. However, if the breakdown of bone occurs too quickly, your body might not generate new bone fast enough to meet demand. This weakens the bone and provides an opportunity for the surface cracks of a stress fracture to form.
What causes this breakdown to accelerate? In many cases, it’s repetitive activity that applies more force to the feet than the bone cycle can handle. In other words, “doing too much too soon” often causes this sports injury. It is commonly seen in runners who have pushed themselves to a higher performance level or more frequent workouts without taking the time to gradually work up strength and endurance.
There are other factors that might come into play when considering your risk for this injury. Certain conditions (such as osteoporosis), vitamin deficiencies, and medications can cause a decrease in bone density that increases the likelihood of a problem. A change in performing surface or the use of improper footwear for an activity can also increase shock to feet and ankles and, in turn, the chances of a crack.
What a Stress Fracture Feels Like
The pain of this injury is often not as sudden and severe as a “standard” broken bone is, but begins as more of a tenderness in a specific spot. This pain tends to decrease during rest, but usually becomes worse over time and with continued use.
Destressing the Condition
If you suspect a stress fracture, the most important thing to do is rest the affected area. Do not continue any activities you feel may have contributed to the injury.
You’ll then want to get a professional examination to get a gauge for the extent of the damage. This does not always require imaging tests such as X-rays or bone scans; in some milder cases a physical exam is usually all that is needed. If we suspect more extensive damage, however, other tests may be requested.
Depending on the specific case, it may be necessary to reduce the weight on the injured area to give it a better chance of healing. This might include the temporary use of a brace, walking boot, or crutches.
Getting Back into Action
Once the injury has healed enough and you are cleared for activity again, it is crucial to provide the body enough time to recondition itself to the demands of activity. One recommended way to do this is to gradually work up from activities that bear little to no weight—such as swimming—and begin to blend in periods of more high-impact activity such as running. We can work with you to devise a good plan that can get you back up to speed.
If you are feeling pain during activity, don’t ignore it. That’s just a ticket for making the problem worse. Dr. Sanjay Patel and the staff of Family Foot Care & Surgery can provide you or a loved one with the care and advice you need to stay active and prevent such problems from happening again. Contact us at either of our offices: (203) 876-7736 for Milford or (203) 288-4055 for Hamden, CT.