What is a Stress Fracture?

An MRI may be needed to identify a stress fracture.
X-rays typically won't show stress fractures.
Runners sometimes suffer from stress fractures.
Article Details
  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
  • Print this Article

Many of us are familiar with bone fractures caused by trauma, such as a simple or compound fracture of the leg. However, there is another form of bone damage which rarely appears on an x-ray, but can still be extremely painful and debilitating. Because it is caused primarily by excessive and cumulative stress on the bone, this form of injury is commonly called a stress fracture. Athletes, dancers and soldiers are especially susceptible, since their job descriptions include excessive standing, marching and running. Some sources even refer to this type of fracture as a fatigue or marching fracture.

Although any bone can potentially receive a stress fracture, most cases requiring treatment occur in the lower legs and feet. Whenever a person runs, dances or performs any other stressful movement, the shock must be absorbed by the body. Ideally, leg muscles should absorb much of the impact before it is transferred to the tibia (lower leg) or the metatarsal bones (feet). As the muscle becomes tired, however, more and more shock is absorbed directly by the bones. Over time this constant pressure and shock can cause a crack in the bone itself, even if it doesn't cause a complete break. This crack is considered a stress fracture.

Ad

Since a stress fracture rarely appears on a standard x-ray, other scanning methods are usually recommended, such as a CT scan or MRI. For many sufferers, the only hint of such a fracture is extreme pain in the affected area. Some minor stress fractures will eventually heal as the bone works to repair itself, so a few weeks of rest and some over-the-counter analgesics for pain should be enough. Other forms are more severe and may call for a plaster or air cast for support and protection. The patient is often asked to remain off the affected limb for several months.

A stress fracture can be prevented through modification of a training program or a change in technique or body mechanics. Runners should periodically change shoes to maintain proper shock absorption. Dietary supplements such as calcium and vitamin D should be used to increase bone density and strength. Some athletes and dancers find that a gradual increase in exercise can reduce the chances of developing a stress fracture. As the bones adjust to the controlled increases in shock, they become stronger and less likely to crack under unusual pressure.

Ad

More from Wisegeek

You might also Like

Discuss this Article

burcidi
Post 4

I read that women experience a lot of hormonal changes which affects bones. My mom, for example, is taking supplements to improve her bone density because of menopause. I have heard that many female athletes also experience hormonal changes and infrequent periods.

Do these factors contribute to risks of fractures? Are stress fractures more common in women than men?

ysmina
Post 3

When I was in college, I exercised a lot. I used to jog for an hour and swim for half an hour daily. All of the sudden, I developed pain in my feet and ankles. It was a persistent ache that continued for more than a week. I remember having trouble sitting through the lectures despite taking pain relievers.

The doctor did not find anything after my examination and concluded that it was probably tendonitis. She told me to stop jogging and to rest for several weeks and keep taking pain relievers. I followed that and the pain disappeared. At that time, I had not heard of stress fractures, but now that I think about it, I think that might have been the problem.

I think the symptoms of tendonitis and stress fractures are similar so I don't know for sure. And I never got a CT scan or anything. I do think that some forms are exercise lead to stress fractures more than others though. After the recommendation of my doctor, I have stopped jogging altogether and only swim. I have not had a similar problem since then.

My doctor had told me then that swimming is the only exercise where there is no pressure applied on your skeletal system. When we jog, each time our feet land, the entire weight of our body is pushed down into our feet. For someone who already has week ankles or weak knees, it's not good. That's why I'm going to keep swimming. I can swim until I'm 100 and I won't have to worry about tendonitis or stress fractures.

SteamLouis
Post 2

I read that all of us lose some bone density naturally just from our everyday activities. But at the same time, our body replaces it by producing new bone and we never have any physical problems from it.

The reason that athletes have stress fractures a lot is because they are much more active than regular people and need to change their nutrition and rest according to that. Athletes need more sleep and food in general, but they also need periods of rest between their training. Apparently, if they don't get enough rest, their chances of developing a stress fracture will be high.

I always thought that athletes are stronger because they build muscle but I never thought about how their training affects their bones. I guess maintaining good health as an athlete is not as easy as it seems.

anon4352
Post 1

The metacarpals are in the hands. Metatarsals are in the feet.

Moderator's reply: Thank you for the clarification! I've corrected it.

Post your comments

Post Anonymously

Login

username
password
forgot password?

Register

username
password
confirm
email