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Stress Fractures

If your hands or feet swell from daily activities, or you experience pain that goes away when you rest, the symptoms may be caused by a stress fracture.

According to MayoClinic.com, stress fractures are tiny cracks in a bone usually caused by repetitive force or overuse. Activities such as long distance running can cause stress fractures. Foot and leg bones that bear the most weight are most susceptible to stress fractures. Anyone can develop a stress fracture, especially if bones and muscles are overused, but they are common among track and field athletes. Stress fractures also can occur with normal use when a person has osteoporosis or some other bone conditions.

The most common place for stress fractures is the lower limbs, but the type of activity a person is involved in is likely to determine where a fracture is located. For instance, a gymnast might develop a fracture in the spine, but a dancer would likely have a fracture of the foot. Stress fractures have been reported to occur in almost all sports, including swimming and wrestling

Pain from stress fractures initially may be minor and brushed off as being from an unknown source. But if the pain persists and increases over a period of time, it is time to pay attention. If pain increases with each workout or continues even at rest, a stress fracture may be indicated. A stress fracture may also be indicated if there is a spot on a bone that is painful to touch. When running or playing hurts, or if you experience pain even after stopping the activity and resting, it is likely time to see a doctor. When stress fractures don’t heal the way they should, it can lead to chronic pain.

Stress fractures develop over a period of time. When a larger amount of force is applied to bones than they normally bear, a stress fracture can result. The increased force causes an imbalance in the body’s ability to grow and resorb bone cells quickly enough, sometimes causing a condition called bone fatigue. If the force on bones continues without enough rest time for recovery, small cracks in the bone can grow into stress fractures.

Risk factors for stress fractures include participation in high impact sports, a sudden change from a sedentary lifestyle to frequent participation in an intense exercise program or joining the military and being required to march frequently. Those with flat feet or high arches also may develop stress fractures. Female athletes who have no periods or abnormal periods are at risk, as are those with osteoporosis or conditions that weaken bone or affect bone density.

Regular X-rays may not show stress fractures for three to four weeks after the patient starts experiencing pain and other symptoms. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging study) or bone scan can confirm the presence of a stress fracture so that it can be treated. Depending on the location of the stress fracture and the level of need to resume activity, treatment may include medication, the use of a walking boot, crutches, or a brace.

When a stress fracture is severe, surgery may be required or the affected area may require a splint or cast. It can take from four to 12 weeks or more for a bone to heal, so a doctor could direct the patient to stay off the affected area and rest for a period of time. Ice packs can help reduce swelling and pain. Activities should be resumed slowly after a doctor approves it. A return to normal activity should be gradual, especially if high impact sports or activities are involved.

To prevent stress fractures, new exercise programs should be started slowly without sudden changes in exercise intensity or the type of exercise being used. Proper exercise equipment and appropriate shoes are essential. Cross training with low impact activities prevents excessive stress to a particular area of the body. And if a person has flat feet, it may be wise to consult a doctor about arch supports.

Although stress fractures can be treated, one of the best ways to help prevent them is to develop strong bones through good nutrition. A diet that includes plenty of calcium and other nutrients that contribute to strong bones will lessen the chance of weakened bones..