If you lead a busy, active lifestyle, there are few things less enjoyable than dealing with unexpected foot pain. Our feet are responsible for getting us from place to place…and that means you’re responsible for making sure they’re strong and healthy enough to do so pain-free.
If you’re experiencing pain that begins and worsens during activities — like walking, running, or playing sports — you may be dealing with a stress fracture. A stress fracture is a common overuse injury that develops gradually from placing continued stress on the feet. Keep reading to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for stress fractures.
What Is a Stress Fracture?
A stress fracture is a tiny crack in a bone. This type of fracture frequently develops in weight-bearing bones like the hip bones, low back, lower leg bones, heels, and feet. Stress fractures are common overuse injuries that occur from placing repetitive stress on the bone over time. For example, athletes who run and jump a lot for their sport are a high-risk group for developing stress fractures in the lower legs, heels, ankles, or feet.
The metatarsal bones in the feet are particularly prone to stress fractures because we use our feet constantly and place a significant amount of pressure on them every day.
While anyone can develop a foot stress fracture, certain factors increase the risk for some people.
- Playing sports. Participating in high-intensity sports like long-distance running, tennis, basketball, dance, and gymnastics increases the risk of developing a foot stress fracture.
- A rapid activity level change. Starting a new fitness routine after being sedentary or increasing the frequency, duration, or intensity of an existing fitness routine can overload the feet and cause fractures. Walking or running on uneven surfaces or hills can also overstress the feet.
- Poor training form. Playing sports and exercising with improper form or technique and wearing poorly fitting shoes for exercise can increase the risk of foot fractures.
- Poor diet and vitamin intake. Failing to eat enough calories for your weight and activity level and failing to get enough nutrients like calcium and vitamin D can weaken bones and cause them to fracture more easily.
- Foot biomechanics. Foot problems like flat feet, high arches, or other foot and toe deformities can increase the risk of developing stress fractures.
- Weight. Being underweight or overweight increases the risk of developing fractures. A low body weight can lead to weakened bones that break easier while carrying extra weight places more stress on the feet.
- Medical conditions. Having a medical condition that affects bone density — like osteoporosis or bone cancer — is a risk factor for stress fractures.
Signs and Symptoms
Stress fractures typically develop slowly, with symptoms increasing and worsening over time. The following symptoms are common.
- Foot pain that worsens with weight-bearing or activity
- Foot pain that recedes with rest
- Tenderness at the fracture site
Left untreated, a foot stress fracture can lead to serious complications like bone displacement and chronic pain. If you’re experiencing foot pain that’s persistent, worsening, and present during rest or sleep, it’s time to see your doctor.
At BEST Surgery and Therapies, we have an on-site urgent care center to treat serious orthopedic injuries like stress fractures. We offer same-day appointments, imaging services, and diagnoses. If you’re in pain, skip the ER or a long wait to see your doctor and come to BEST’s urgent ortho care clinic instead.
Many stress fractures heal with time, rest, and at-home care. Your doctor may recommend the following foot treatment plan.
- Activity modifications. While your foot is healing, you’ll need to avoid high-impact activities that place excess stress on the fracture site. In place of high-impact exercises, swimming, biking, and walking are alternative low-impact activities that may be safe to do. However, make sure you clear all activities with your doctor before starting.
- Ice therapy. You can apply ice packs to the injured area several times a day to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation.
- Medications. An over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen or NSAID like ibuprofen can help relieve mild pain.
- Casting or protective footwear. Your doctor might recommend an assistive device to reduce weight-bearing on your fractured foot. Depending on the severity of your injury, protective footwear could include a stiff-soled shoe, wooden-soled sandal, foot brace, walking boot, or cast. Additionally, your doctor might recommend using crutches while your foot heals.
In some cases, stress fractures require internal fixation surgery to heal completely. Foot surgery is usually recommended if a fracture doesn’t respond well to conservative treatments.
Most stress fractures take approximately 6-8 weeks to heal completely. The best way to ensure a full recovery is to follow your doctor’s instructions for returning to activities. Beginning high-impact activities too soon can slow the healing process, reinjure the foot, or cause chronic pain and complications.
Find Expert Foot, Ankle, and Heel Care at BEST
BEST Surgery and Therapies provides a single-solution experience for orthopedic care, pain management, sports medicine, urgent orthopedic care, and outpatient surgery. Our unique care model integrates all services and treatments our patients need — including imaging, personalized treatment plans, innovative pain management procedures, physical therapy, and surgery — in a single, patient-focused location.
If you have foot, ankle, or heel pain, don’t wait any longer to see a doctor. Please call us to speak with a dedicated Patient Experience Coordinator and schedule your first appointment in our Cincinnati, OH facility.