Page header image

Stress Fractures

What is a stress fracture?

A stress fracture is a hairline crack that can occur in bones from repeated or prolonged use. The most common sites for stress fracture are the foot bones (metatarsals), shin bone (tibia), outer lower leg bone (fibula), thigh bone (femur), hip (neck of femur), and back bones (vertebrae).

How does it occur?

Stress fractures are overuse injuries. The majority of leg injuries occur during activities such as running, jumping, or dancing.

What are the symptoms?

A stress fracture causes pain when the injured part of the body is used. You may also have swelling and bruising.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and may order an X-ray. However, X-rays do not always show a stress fracture. Your provider may order a more specialized test called a bone scan or an MRI.

How is it treated?

The most important treatment for a stress fracture is rest. Other ways to treat stress fractures may include:

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables, wrapped in a cloth on the area every 3 to 4 hours, for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen, or other medicine as directed by your provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.
  • Wear a cast or boot for 3 to 6 weeks while the bone heals.
  • If you are a runner, run only if there is no pain.
  • Change your activity, such as from running to swimming.

In some cases, surgery is needed.

When can I return to my normal activities?

Everyone recovers from an injury at a different rate. Return to your activities depends on how soon your fracture heals, not by how many days or weeks it has been since your injury has occurred. In general, the longer you have symptoms before you start treatment, the longer it will take to get better. The goal is to return to your normal activities as soon as is safely possible. If you return too soon you may worsen your injury.

After a stress fracture you may do activities that do not cause pain. You should vary your activity for one week at a time. For instance, if you have a stress fracture from running, you should either rest or swim for a week, then attempt to run short distances. If there is no pain, you can gradually increase your activity level.

How can I prevent a stress fracture?

Stress fractures are caused by overuse. The best way to avoid getting a stress fracture is to listen to your body and not force yourself to do activities while you are in pain.

Written by Pierre Rouzier, MD, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-06-08
Last reviewed: 2011-06-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
Page footer image