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Ignoring a Stress (Fatigue) Fracture May Lead to a More Serious Fracture (and More Pain!)

Ignoring a Stress (Fatigue) Fracture May Lead to a More Serious Fracture (and More Pain!)

Stress fractures are one of the most common types of sports injuries, and they can happen in nonathletes, too. Also called fatigue fractures, stress fractures are very tiny cracks in a bone, and unlike larger fractures that are usually caused by acute trauma, stress fractures typically occur as a result of repetitive stress or overuse activities.

Because they’re so tiny, stress (fatigue) fractures usually don’t cause severe pain initially, which could make it tempting to ignore the discomfort. But, just because they’re small doesn’t mean stress fractures don’t need medical care. If you delay care, a “minor” fracture could develop into a major problem. In addition, they may not be visible on standard X-rays initially. 

At Powell Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, Thomas Powell, MD, and his team have extensive experience treating stress fractures in athletes and nonathletes. Here’s how to tell if your symptoms could be caused by a stress fracture and what you can do if they are.

How Stress fractures occur

Your bones are in a constant process of remodeling. This means your body continually gets rid of old bone tissue and replaces it with new tissue. However, if your bones are subjected to continual stress, old bone tissue can break down faster than new bone tissue can replace it.

The result is microscopic damage that leads to weakened areas of bone. Those weak spots are far more prone to tiny stress fractures. Not surprisingly, fatigue fractures are more common in your legs and feet, which are parts of your body that are routinely subjected to plenty of stress during all sorts of weight-bearing activities, especially athletics.

In addition to repetitive use, increasing the frequency of a stressful activity also increases your risk of developing a fatigue fracture. You also increase your risk if you switch activities, moving from your “regular” routine to another routine that puts extra stress on your bones or muscles. If you’re unsure of how to exercise and train without putting too much stress on your body, Dr. Powell can give you guidance.

Symptoms of stress fractures

As with other fractures, stress fractures are most commonly associated with pain, typically a dull, persistent aching that gets worse with activity or weight-bearing. Other symptoms to watch out for include:

The pain associated with stress fractures often lessens with rest, which is one reason why activity modification is so important for recovery and healing.

The importance of medical treatment

Because stress (fatigue) fractures typically cause mild symptoms initially, it could be tempting to ignore them and get on with your routine. But, even though they’re tiny, these fractures are still fractures, and they need medical attention, just like larger fractures do. 

Ignoring a stress fracture increases the likelihood you’ll need intensive fracture care, including surgery to repair the bone. It could also increase your risk of developing arthritis in the area in the future.

What to do if you suspect you have a fatigue (stress) fracture

If you suspect you have a fatigue fracture, stop activity immediately and rest the limb. Continued activity could increase stress on the bone and the muscles that support it, which could lead to a more serious fracture. In fact, one of the best ways of preventing stress fractures is to incorporate rest breaks into your routine to give your bone and muscle tissues plenty of time to repair damaged areas. 

Next, call the office and schedule an appointment. Until your visit, apply ice to the area 3-4 times a day for about 20 minutes each time. You can also take over-the-counter pain medicine to relieve discomfort.

At your visit, you can expect Dr. Powell to order X-rays, perform a physical examination of the affected bone, and review your symptoms, medical history, and lifestyle activities. Based on the results of your exam, he’ll prescribe treatment, which could include:

Many patients benefit from a combination of therapies, based on their symptoms and other factors.

Don’t ignore your stress fracture

Stress fractures need prompt medical attention like any other type of fracture. If you postpone treatment or try to treat a stress fracture on your own, you could have a far more serious problem in the future. 

If you think you may have a fracture of any kind, call 205-606-5232 or book an appointment online with Powell Orthopedics and Sports Medicine today.

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