Stress fractures are tiny cracks in bones often caused by overuse or osteoporosis. Learn how to prevent and treat them.
Stress fractures are tiny cracks in a bone. They're caused by repetitive force, often from overuse — such as repeatedly jumping up and down or running long distances. Stress fractures can also develop from normal use of a bone that's weakened by a condition such as osteoporosis.
Stress fractures are most common in the weight-bearing bones of the lower leg and foot. Track and field athletes and military recruits who carry heavy packs over long distances are at highest risk, but anyone can sustain a stress fracture. If you start a new exercise program, for example, you might develop stress fractures if you do too much too soon.
Stress fractures are tiny cracks in a bone — most commonly, in the weight-bearing bones of the lower leg and foot.
At first, you might barely notice the pain associated with a stress fracture, but it tends to worsen with time. The tenderness usually starts at a specific spot and decreases during rest. You might have swelling around the painful area.
Contact your doctor if your pain becomes severe or if you feel pain even when resting or at night.
Stress fractures often result from increasing the amount or intensity of an activity too quickly.
Bone adapts gradually to increased loads through remodeling, a normal process that speeds up when the load on the bone increases. During remodeling, bone tissue is destroyed (resorption), then rebuilt.
Bones subjected to unaccustomed force without enough time for recovery resorb cells faster than your body can replace them, which makes you more susceptible to stress fractures.
Factors that can increase your risk of stress fractures include:
Some stress fractures don't heal properly, which can cause chronic problems. If underlying causes are not taken care of, you may be at higher risk of additional stress fractures.
Simple steps can help you prevent stress fractures.
Doctors can sometimes diagnose a stress fracture from a medical history and a physical exam, but imaging tests are often needed.
To reduce the bone's weight-bearing load until healing occurs, you might need to wear a walking boot or brace or use crutches.
Although unusual, surgery is sometimes necessary to ensure complete healing of some types of stress fractures, especially those that occur in areas with a poor blood supply. Surgery also might be an option to help healing in elite athletes who want to return to their sport more quickly or laborers whose work involves the stress fracture site.
It's important to give the bone time to heal. This may take several months or even longer. In the meantime:
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care provider. If you are a competitive athlete, you might go directly to a doctor who specializes in musculoskeletal problems.
Before the appointment, make a list of:
Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you're given.
For stress fractures, basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.