A stress fracture is an overuse injury caused by repetitive strain on a bone. They can take days or even weeks to develop, and are fairly common amongst athletes. Activities such as running, jumping, and weightlifting are commonly associated with stress fractures due to the length of time that weight-bearing bones are under exceptional tension with these activities. They differ from other most other fractures which occur as a result of a sudden impact. Below we discuss the nature of a stress fracture, its symptoms, and actions you can take to prevent them.
What do stress fractures look like?
Stress fractures are very small, microscopic cracks and occur in the outside portion of a bone called the cortex. They’re often referred to as “hairline fractures”. The bone reaches a ‘breaking point’ and cracks due to prolonged trauma without sufficient recovery time between exercise sessions. A person is most vulnerable to stress fractures when they make a significant change to their training regime – such as increasing the frequency or intensity of their workouts, or beginning a training regime after a long period of inactivity.
There are a number of other factors that increase your likelihood of developing stress fractures. For instance, practising poor form or improper technique can affect the way your feet and legs absorb the impact of physical activity. Even moving awkwardly due to a blister or other injury for too long can lead to a stress fracture. Ensure you follow the correct technique whenever you exercise, and if you have an injury that prevents this, take it easy or change up your routine for a while.
Additionally, any conditions that weaken your bones can make you more vulnerable to stress fractures. Osteoporosis is an obvious example, but even a poor diet can mean your bones lack the nutrients required to sustain certain exercises. As with many sport-related conditions, a healthy, balanced diet can go a long way to preventing them.
Poor equipment, such as worn shoes, or a change in playing surface, such as changing from a sports court to grass, can also increase your chances of developing a stress fracture.
Due to the nature of stress fractures, certain bones are far more susceptible than others, and they’re almost all in the lower body. They include bones in the feet: the metatarsals, navicular bone, and the heel bone (calcaneus). Working upwards, the bones in your legs at risk are: tibia, fibula, and femur; as well as your pubic rami (in the pelvis), sacrum, and your lumbar spine.
The most common bones connected to stress fractures are by far the metatarsals, followed by the other bones in the foot. These are somewhat infamous for football injuries.
What are the symptoms?
Pain that’s similar to a regular ache or sporting injury can be a sign that you’re suffering from a stress fracture. But there are some telltale signs that you have a stress fracture as opposed to something milder. For instance, the pain may not be localised to an identifiable point, it may just be a dull ache that’s around one of the aforementioned vulnerable areas. Your pain may even subside when at rest, but then come back again as soon as you start a particular activity (likely the activity that induced your stress fracture in the first place).
Another common symptom is feeling weak in a specific joint or bone and struggling to maintain previous performance levels. For example, a weightlifter may be unable to match previous weights, or a runner may be unable to run as fast or for as long as usual. If this is accompanied by swelling and extra sensitivity around the area in question, it’s very likely that you have a stress fracture.
Most aches and pains that result from exercise will cease to be a problem after you’ve protected the area in question, rested, applied ice, compressed the area, and elevated it (in other words, followed the PRICE protocol). A major symptom of a stress fracture is if the pain persists even after taking these steps. Stress fractures take longer to heal than a typical sporting sprain or strain.
One thing that’s important to bear in mind is the context in which the pain arises. As we’ve mentioned already, a sudden increase in physical activity is a common cause of stress fractures. Experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned here within a few weeks of changing your exercise routine, and you may need to ease off temporarily until you get the problem looked at by a professional. As a general rule, listen to your body – it’ll tell you when something isn’t right.
Coming back from a stress fracture
If you’re suffering from a stress fracture – or multiple fractures – visit our Injury Advice page to find out how to treat stress fractures. If you have developed a fracture, as well as getting better you’ll want to protect these bones in the future. One way to do so is by wearing Entertor sports inserts.
Enertor insoles have been rigorously tested and are proven to protect against stress fractures thanks to their state-of-the-art PX1 technology. We have the support of Usain Bolt and the British Armed Forces, and you can see our insoles in action in this short video. Check out our product range to find the perfect insoles for you.
Please note that we stand by our recommendations but it is advice and shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a professional examination. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms discussed above, please consult your doctor as soon as possible.