Managing a Foot Stress Fracture the Right Way

Managing a Foot Stress Fracture the Right Way

A stress fracture in the foot is usually associated with an overuse injury to weight-bearing bones. Most athletes affected are involved in high-impact sports that involve running and jumping such as distance running, basketball, tennis, and football.

Bones generally respond to stress by hardening along their outer margins. When suddenly exposed to strong forces or ongoing stress, there is little time for bones to adapt.  Meanwhile, muscles associated with the feet lose their shock-absorbing capacities when fatigued. These uncontrolled forces inadvertently transfer to nearby bones, possibly resulting in small cracks that are better known as stress fractures.

Foot pain caused by stress fractures generally occurs on the top portion of the foot but can also radiate along the heel, side of the foot, and within the ankle joint itself.  Stress fractures commonly occur along the outer ridge of the forefoot over the fifth metatarsal bone. This is often referred to as either a Jones fracture or a Dancer’s fracture, depending on location.

Individuals with a stress fracture usually experience increased pain with movement and, as the condition worsens, even while resting.

Sources of Sore Feet

High-impact activities that result in overuse and put frequent pressure on the lower extremities can lead to stress fractures, such as running, soccer, football, basketball, gymnastics, etc. 

Wearing footwear with little to no shock-absorbing capacities is another contributing factor. Women are more likely to be affected than men, possibly due to poor eating habits/eating disorders and disruptions in their menstrual cycle. Among both genders, excessive aerobic exercise with insufficient rest periods can also increase the chance of getting a stress fracture.

Notably, the presence of underlying bone diseases or disorders can drastically increase the risk for these painful foot conditions.

Signs & Symptoms of Stress Fractures in the Foot

  • Localized foot pain that is dull, aching or sharp and occurs during activity (especially running) and/or periods of rest
  • Mild-to-severe foot swelling and tenderness
  • Pain that worsens with prolonged exposure to ice and during sleep
  • An initial sensation of sharp pain followed by intensifying aching  
  • Localized discoloration and possible stiffness in surrounding joints

Professional Treatment for Stress Fractures

  • Get plenty of rest and apply ice.
  • Consult a physician early on to obtain an exam, X-rays and special testing, if necessary.
  • Avoid placing excessive weight on the affected foot.
  • Wear shock-absorbing footwear, and if symptoms worsen, use a walking boot to help mitigate stress on the injury site.
  • Use a non-weight bearing cast and crutches, if necessary.
  • Eat healthy and ingest the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) amounts of calcium and Vitamin D to help restore bone integrity.
  • When symptoms improve, engage in strength training for the arch, toe flexors and weak muscles in the lower extremity.
  • Maintain an ideal range of motion for the surrounding muscles and joints, specifically the Achilles, calf, plantar fascia, great toe and ankle joint.

Ask the Right Questions like a Pro

Here’s what smart pro athletes would ask a sports medicine specialist to ensure a fast and safe return to their beloved game or sport:

1. What do you believe is the main reason(s) why this injury occurred?

2. Are diagnostic tests necessary to further assess the injury?

3. How can I best manage this pain and get back to my sport?

4. What non-surgical treatment options are available, if any?

5. Do I have any leg length disparities or other biomechanical abnormalities that require orthotics or other treatment to avoid long-term foot pain issues?

Elite Sports Medicine Tips from Mike Ryan

  • Time is of the Essence –  Visit a sports medicine specialist as soon as symptoms appear to best manage foot pain from the onset.
  • Rest Rocks –  It’s boring, but REST is the #1 tool to tame a stress fracture.  For how long, you ask?  Prepare yourself for 2 to 6 weeks of inactivity if symptoms persist. 
  • Proceed with Caution – Resume your pre-injury activities at a slow pace, adding strengthening and stretching exercises to your routine.
  • Mix it Up –  Cross Training is king. Add varied activities such as biking, swimming, yoga, and elliptical training to stay in shape and save your “marriage” during this break from activity.
  • Accessorize Appropriately – Ensure all footwear and exercise equipment meet the required standards to prevent re-injury.
  • No Big Break – Stress fractures can easily develop into typical bone fractures if left untreated.  Setting limitations from the get go can help you avoid the “big break.”

Author: Mike Ryan

After 26 seasons as a full-time certified athletic trainer and registered physical therapist in the National Football League, Mike Ryan has outstanding first-hand experience. His unique professional and athletic background has sharpened his skills in the arts of sports injury management, elite rehabilitation, performance enhancement and injury prevention. Mike is now taking his experience to mainstream America. His mission is simple: Sports Medicine advice that is easy to use and brings fast results. Learn more about Mike Ryan

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