Hurting yourself sucks. A self-inflicted injury from sports or from trying to lose weight is even worse. Being a distance runner, minor aches and pains pop up for me all the time. But that pain in my foot just won’t go away, and the big race is coming up. Stress fracture? Possibly. Run through the pain? Probably. Should I? Nope. The best thing to do is to get checked out by a professional before that little pain that could be a stress fracture becomes a much larger (and more painful) problem.
Stress fractures occur from overuse—when you push your body too hard, too fast—or from weak bones due to osteoporosis. Your bones can’t always handle repetitive, stressful activity—like your foot slamming on pavement for 26.2 miles. This can cause tiny little cracks in bones, most often in your feet, toes, or shins, that hurt like hell. If you notice pain or swelling in a specific spot, along with pain during your workout that progressively gets worse (and less pain when you rest), you might have a stress fracture and should seek treatment. Just as a warning, prepare yourself for a potentially long recovery time.
Stress Fractures: 101
Stress fractures pop up when you push your bones beyond what they can support. Tiny cracks appear in weight-bearing bones, most often in your lower legs and feet. Warning signs to look out for include:
- Pain or swelling in a particular area.
- Pain that worsens during your workout.
- Pain that increases throughout your workout.
- Less pain while at rest.
- And if you’ve ignored all these signs: pain even while at rest.
Best Treatment for Stress Fractures
The best way to not have stress fractures is to avoid them. Technically speaking, the best way to avoid a sports injury is to become a lazy bum and swear off sports. But for us die-hards, the best way is to live a healthy lifestyle outside of your sport. Stay hydrated, eat your Wheaties, take your vitamins, stretch properly, lift weights to keep muscles happy, or cross train with another low-impact activity. And whatever sport you enjoy, get nice gear for it! Your favorite old, worn-out shoes cannot support your body properly, even if they did win every basketball game back in high school.
The moment you think you might have a stress fracture, take a break. Pushing your body when it’s broken is not going to make you stronger. Especially with stress fractures; that hairline crack is only going to get bigger and deeper when you apply more pressure, so lay off it. Depending where your injury is, you can do other activities to stay active. Elliptical machines and swimming are great options that keep your blood going and they’re easier on your bones.
Apply ice and take over-the-counter pain relievers to feel better. This won’t make your problem go away, but it will make the whole process more tolerable. You can ice a few times per day, for about 10 minutes each time, to help relieve pain. Just remember to wrap your ice pack/frozen veggies in a cloth before applying; straight on your skin isn’t so good for you. Taking Tylenol or another pain reliever (like Aleve, which Amazon sells) will make you feel a little better for stretches of time, and can help with swelling.
Only a visit to your doctor can confirm your stress fracture suspicions. You can try to self-diagnose and medicate, but your doctor is the only one who can figure out exactly what is going on with your particular injury, and tell you the best way to recover from it. Stress fractures can be tricky; they can be so fine that a plain old X-ray won’t be good enough. MRIs or other diagnostic imaging might be necessary to really find the problem. Remember, doctors can also prescribe the good stuff to make your pain go away.
Do what the medical people tell you to do. They’re smart. They’ve been to school for a long, long time. They took out enormous amounts of debt simply to be able to help you. Follow their advice, the main component of which will most likely be rest, for at least two weeks, but up to a few months. Don’t push it. Other treatments might include: calcium supplements (to give bones a leg-up on healing), pain relievers, possibly a cast, and (for the most severe cases), surgery. The last two options are pretty rare, but they’re a possibility if you really screw things up. You’ll also have to resume activity slowly, increasing duration and intensity gradually.
Calcium supplements. Remember what your mom used to tell you? Drink your milk! You’ll grow up big and strong! Well, she’s right. Bones need calcium to stay strong, so eat your dairy products and/or take calcium supplements to keep them in tip-top shape so you can abuse them more in your athletics. You can order Calcium from Amazon.
Barefoot Athletic Shoes. I know people that swear by these things. “Feet were designed to move in their own way; don’t screw things up with clunky shoes,” they say. Well, I don’t see that humans were especially designed to run marathon distances in the first place, and I love running. But if you’re going to do it, one way to go is natural.
See your doctor about the pain, even if you don’t want to.
Some people, myself included, hate going to doctors unless at death’s door. I mean, doctors are pretty smart people, but they can’t magically fix things. A friend of mine had three stress fractures in his tibia after a marathon, and they only told him to quit running for two months and get plenty of calcium. Prescribed treatment for minor stress fractures might not be more than you can figure out yourself. If it hurts, don’t do it for a while. Eat healthy. Ice it and self-medicate with an over-the-counter pain reliever. But even if this is all your primary doctor or sports medicine specialist tells you, at least you’ll have the endorsement of someone who actually knows what they are talking about—which can make you feel better about your injury. So, although I’m not dragging you to your local clinic, it is the only way to give your stress fracture the most effective treatment with the shortest recovery time, and will help prevent further injury.