What is a Stress Fracture and How Can You Avoid It?

A quick guide to the causes, symptoms and prevention of stress fractures

A stress fracture is an overuse injury, which is actually a small crack in the bone. Common in athletes or those new to exercise, stress fractures typically occur in weight bearing areas like the legs. When the muscles tire or aren’t conditioned enough to support the bones as well as they should, the pressure falls to the bones.

Stress fractures usually happen when athletes increase the amount or intensity of exercise (or both). They’ve also been known to occur in athletes that switch surfaces, for example a volley ball player accustomed to sand would be at a higher risk for stress fractures if they began playing on a hard court.

Athletes and exercisers can tell they have a stress fracture when they feel pain during their activity. The pain might stop when they rest and there may be swelling, but for pain that persists during exercise, it’s best to see a doctor.

Should the doctor discover a stress fracture, he or she will most likely recommend resting the affected area. Sometimes they will suggest shoe inserts or braces and cross-training is key for athletes that have been cleared.

As always, though, the key is to prevent stress fractures altogether. Here are tips from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons to help prevent stress fractures:

  • When participating in any new sports activity, set incremental goals. For example, do not immediately set out to run five miles a day; instead, gradually build up your mileage on a weekly basis.
  • Cross-training—alternating activities that accomplish the same fitness goals -- can help to prevent injuries like stress fractures. Instead of running every day to meet cardiovascular goals, run on even days and bike on odd days. Add some strength training and flexibility exercises to the mix for the most benefit.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Make sure you incorporate calcium and Vitamin D-rich foods in your meals.
  • Use the proper equipment. Do not wear old or worn running shoes.
  • If pain or swelling occurs, immediately stop the activity and rest for a few days. If continued pain persists, see an orthopaedic surgeon.