Few conditions are more frustrating for athletes, hikers, outdoor enthusiasts, and other active people than stress fractures in feet.
Your feet may look fine on the outside. They may even feel okay after you’ve rested them for a few days, or maybe even a week. You think to yourself, “It’s not so bad. I can handle this.”
But as soon as you start to dial up your activities again, the pain returns in force and you’re back to square one.
What Are Foot and Ankle Stress Fractures?
Stress fractures are tiny cracks in the surface of a bone, which cause aches and pains that tend to increase with activity and decrease with rest. They are most likely to occur in the weight-bearing bones of the feet and legs, particularly the tarsal and metatarsal bones in the arches and balls of the feet.
This common sports injury tends to develop gradually, and can steadily worsen if you don’t seek proper care. A mild stress fracture may only cause minor aches in a single spot on the foot, while severe stress fractures can lead to substantial pain over a wide area, even during periods of rest.
What Causes Stress Fractures?
The simple, high-level explanation for stress fractures is that your bones have been subjected to more force and pressure than they can handle over too long a timeframe, without adequate opportunities to rest and recover.
When things are working well, your feet are designed to work like shock absorbers, with the arch flexing and weight distributed over a wider area and longer timeframe. When the feet are overworked and fatigued, however, they can’t dampen the shocks as effectively, and harsher forces get loaded directly onto the bones. This can cause them to bruise and crack.
A variety of underlying causes and risk factors may contribute to the development of stress fractures. They include:
- Wearing improper, unsupportive footwear.
- Making drastic changes to your exercise routine, or significantly increasing the intensity of exercise in a short timeframe. (This could include anything from starting a new sport, starting a new job, or even doing a ton of walking while on vacation.)
- Not taking enough rest days during training to allow your body to recover.
- Having weakened bones due to poor nutrition or a condition like osteoporosis.
- Having a foot structure or biomechanical inefficiency (such as flat feet or high arches) that makes stress fractures more likely.
Treatment Options for Foot and Ankle Stress Fractures
We have good news and bad news.
The good news is that, in the vast majority of cases, the only thing stress fractures truly need to heal is time. Surgery, or other more aggressive treatments, usually aren’t required.
The bad news is that, if your body is working alone to heal the injury, it may take 6 to 8 weeks to complete the process. For people who love to be active or work on their feet, that is a long time to wait, and setbacks are unfortunately common. Each time you push yourself too hard, you can undo the healing that’s already taken place, prolonging the problem—and in some cases, making the fractures themselves worse.
Fortunately, our team can help you through and get you safely to the end of recovery! For example:
- Sometimes the foot needs to be protected, temporarily, by a walking boot, brace, or even a short cast. This is to ensure the foot bones are able to heal themselves without interference.
- Custom orthotics may be prescribed in order to provide extra cushioning and support for your feet. They’ll not only help protect your feet during the recovery period, but also greatly reduce your risk of developing stress fractures again in the future.
- Although it’s more commonly known as a treatment option for soft tissue injuries, studies have shown that MLS laser therapy can help boost osteoblast production to accelerate bone healing, and it also can significantly reduce any associated soft tissue pain you may be experiencing.
Healing at Home
As your symptoms improve, it can be very tempting to “overdo” it and wind up back in pain. It’s extremely important that you follow strict guidelines to gradually increase your activity levels over time. Doing too much (or too little) will only delay your return to full health.
We will always make sure you have all the information you need to manage your recovery successfully at home, and we’re happy to customize a “return to full activity” plan that can keep you moving with low-impact exercises (like swimming or cycling) while you heal. But patience and discipline will still be key!
We may also provide additional guidelines to help you prevent future stress fractures, including footwear advice, exercise recommendations, and more. We don’t just want to get you back on your feet; we want to keep you there!
If you don’t take them seriously, stress fractures can drag on and on and make your life miserable. Don’t let this happen to you! Instead, call and request an appointment with Dr. Pilling at either our Twin Falls or Burley locations.
- Twin Falls: (208) 733-0436
- Burley: (208) 678-2727