If you're thinking about jumping into a sport, you might want to ease into it instead—for the sake of your bones.
Overdoing exercise may result in painful cracks called stress fractures, one of the most common sports injuries, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). But whether you take to the court, track, field or gym, you can reduce your risk of stress fractures by taking proper precautions.
Cause and effect
Stress fractures happen when muscles are overtired and can no longer absorb the shock of repeated impacts, according to the AAOS. When that happens, the muscles transfer the stress to the bones, which can lead to small fractures.
Risk factors for stress fractures include:
Most stress fractures occur in the weight-bearing bones of the lower leg and foot, according to the AAOS.
The most common symptom is pain directly over the area where the fracture is. The pain develops gradually, worsens with weight-bearing activity (such as walking) and improves with rest. Often, tenderness and swelling occur along with the pain.
Steps to take
If you suspect a stress fracture, stop whatever activity you're doing and rest with an ice pack on the painful area. It's important to see your doctor too; ignoring the pain could result in the bone breaking entirely, according to the AAOS.
Since stress fractures don't show up well on x-rays early on, a bone scan may be needed to help determine the cause of your symptoms. As part of the procedure, you will be given a dose of a mildly radioactive substance called technetium through an intravenous line. This substance occurs naturally in your body and has a role in bone formation. After a few hours, a scanner is used to detect the amount of technetium absorbed by the bones. If a bone is repairing a stress fracture, it will absorb more of the substance than other bones will, and the fractured bone will stand out on the scan.
Treatment and prevention
In most cases, stress fractures heal on their own with plenty of rest—usually several weeks—from the activity that caused the stress fracture.
If you resume the activity that caused your injury too quickly, it could cause larger stress fractures that take longer to heal. Repeated injuries also could lead to chronic problems and prevent the fracture from ever healing completely.
However, you may still be able to take part in other activities. If running caused a foot fracture, for instance, swimming could be substituted for a while to help maintain exercise while putting less pressure on the foot.
Some stress fractures require other treatment in addition to rest. Options include:
The best treatment, of course, is prevention. Here are some tips from the AAOS and other experts to help prevent stress fractures: