Stress Fracture

Sometimes, gravity can be an athlete’s worst enemy—especially in the case of stress fractures.

This overuse injury occurs most commonly among athletes who run and jump a lot, repeatedly putting a significant amount of weight on the legs and feet. That’s why most stress fractures occur in the bones of the foot and lower leg (they can also occur in the spine in a condition known as spondylolysis).

In a stress fracture, the bone does not completely break in half; instead, tiny cracks form, and these grow into stress fractures. The condition can cause intense pain when you put weight on the bone and when you touch the fractured area. Swelling also can accompany the pain, and you may find the pain worsens with each workout.

If you have lower leg pain, and taking some time off from weight-bearing activities doesn’t relieve it, you may have a stress fracture—and because a stress fracture that heals improperly can cause chronic pain, it’s crucial to treat the condition.

Sports that most often cause stress fractures are those in which the legs and feet pound the ground repeatedly, such as in gymnastics, running, ballet dancing, basketball and soccer. However, anyone who has suddenly increased his or her activity level can develop a stress fracture.

There are a number of tests your doctor can perform to diagnose a stress fracture. These tests include magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, on the affected bone, along with taking an X-ray or a bone scan, in which a radioactive tracer is tracked through the bone.

To help your stress fracture heal, it’s important to minimize the weight you put on the affected bone. To do this, you may need to use crutches, a splint, or, if the fracture is in your foot, a supportive boot. In very serious cases, surgery may be necessary to heal a stress fracture.