Baseball, football, basketball, Lacrosse, gymnastics, running, tennis – no matter what sport you play, you may experience a stress fracture in your foot or lower leg at some point. And you may not even be aware of it.
Even Houston Astros pitcher Rudy Owens didn’t notice the stress fracture in his foot. “When I first started feeling it, it never hurt when I pitched — only when I’d run,” Owens said. His pain worsened, and eventually he needed surgery to correct the fracture.
But stress fractures can also occur simply by switching playing surfaces from soft to hard, or when a basketball player has a big increase in playing time. Whenever an athlete is engaged in a sport where the foot strikes the ground repeatedly and repetitively, the risk of a stress fracture increases, especially when that athlete doesn’t get proper rest between games or workouts.
Stress fractures occur when muscles in the foot become fatigued. When the fatigued muscle can longer absorb additional shock, it transfers the overload of stress to the bone, which causes a tiny crack. This is the very reason that stress fractures can go undetected and untreated for long periods. You’re not aware of any physical injury – you didn’t drop an anvil on your foot – so you walk it off and keep playing.
Yet the pain worsens, because as you continue to stress the cracked bone, the crack becomes larger, often resulting in a full blown fracture. Then you’re on the sidelines for the season.
How to protect your feet from stress fractures
- Most stress fractures appear in the weight-bearing bones of the lower legs and feet. Those most susceptible are athletes who subject their feet to repetitive actions on hard surfaces, like basketball players, tennis players, and gymnasts.
- Proper conditioning is the best defense against stress fractures. If the muscles in your feet and ankles remain strong and flexible, they’re better able to absorb stress. Stretching the muscles in your legs, feet, and ankles pre and post-game or workout is key.
- Set incremental goals – don’t try to do too much too soon – build up to your goal.
- Cross training is very effective at working different muscle groups. For instance, if you’re a basketball player, when you’re not on the court, biking or strength training should be your workout, so your feet have time to recover.
- WEAR PROPER SHOES. We can’t stress this one enough. Many athletic foot injuries can be avoided simply by wearing shoes that offer proper protection and support for your particular activity.
Symptoms of stress fractures
Constant or periodic pain or soreness with activity, which will subside when you rest. There may also be some tenderness or swelling.
Treatment of stress fractures
Rest is essential for healing. If you continue to do the same activity which caused the stress fracture, it will definitely worsen. A stress fracture will take 6-8 weeks to fully heal, which may seem like a long time in-season. However, if you injure the foot further, your healing time will increase, and chronic problems may result.
See a podiatrist as soon as you experience pain in your foot. A stress fracture treated early can have you back in the game quickly.
When resting, elevate and ice the sore foot, and use over the counter anti inflammatory medicine like aleve or advil to manage the pain.
Custom orthotics from a podiatrist’s office, which are worn in your shoes, may be very helpful in shifting weight off of the area of the fracture. This may allow you to resume playing somewhat earlier.