A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Stress fractures: Aches you shouldn’t ignore

Asian woman running through wooded park

Running, especially doing too much too soon as part of a new exercise program, increases your risk for stress fractures.

It’s normal to feel sore after exercise, but pain over a bone is probably more than your typical muscle ache.

If you’re an avid exerciser who experiences persistent pain in a specific spot, you should see a doctor. You may have a stress fracture that could become larger and harder to heal if left untreated.

Overuse injuries of the lower leg

A stress fracture is a small crack in the bone caused by repetitive and excessive force. Most stress fractures occur in the lower leg and are most common in the tibia, or shin bone, said Dr. Laurel Rudolph, a Marshfield Clinic sports medicine physician.

“Stress fractures occur when you don’t rest enough after impact activities,” Rudolph said.

Certain activities increase your risk for developing stress fractures:

  • Doing too much too soon after starting a new exercise program
  • Running, especially if you log more than 25 miles per week or your form puts added stress on your lower legs
  • Other sports in which your feet repetitively strike the ground like track and field, tennis, basketball and gymnastics

Your doctor will ask you about your pain and exercise routine to diagnose your injury and order special imaging tests if needed.

Shin splints or a stress fracture?

Stress fractures often are confused with shin splints, another common overuse injury of the lower leg. Shin splints are caused by excessive muscle use.

How can you tell the difference?

“Shin splints usually involve pain that radiates up and down the shin and subsides with rest,” Rudolph said. “Stress fractures involve pain in a specific spot that may linger after activity.”

Rest and active recovery

If you have a stress fracture, you’ll need to take a break from the impact activity that’s causing pain. Your doctor may recommend crutches if walking is painful. Recovery takes 2-10 weeks depending how serious your injury is.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be active, Rudolph said. Exercising in a pool is safe and many people who have stress fractures can use a stationary bike if that exercise doesn’t cause pain.

Ask your doctor about exercises you can do safely while recovering from a stress fracture.

Pace yourself, practice healthy habits

Pacing yourself when it comes to exercise can reduce your risk for stress fractures. Ease into a fitness program if you haven’t been active. Cross train and get enough rest to prevent injury.

Eat a balanced diet that contains adequate calcium and vitamin D for strong bones. Avoid unhealthy habits that weaken your bones, like smoking and drinking alcohol in excess.

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