Stress fractures for dummies

Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, recovery – you got this

X-rays, crutches, plaster casts. It’s pretty depressing when you get diagnosed with a stress fracture.

At first you think ‘Why me?’ and start visualising all those finish lines you’re not crossing that season, the money you’ve wasted booking races, the empty time you’ve got to fill now you’re not training and the worry of losing fitness.

But it needn’t all be doom and gloom. I’ve had my fair share of stress fractures – three in fact, one femoral, two metatarsal. And I’ve lived to tell the tale – and gone on to run PBs since.

Interestingly, those stress fractures were near the start of my time racing when I had completed my second/third marathons.

Perhaps it was my body still getting used to the intense impact of training and racing? Perhaps it was the entry-level Asics I thought were a good idea at the time? Perhaps not taking a rest day took its toll? Or maybe the stressful balance of work and running life had broken my body?

Either way, each was a hard lesson to learn. Yet I genuinely think with every injury you acquire through running, you come back stronger, smarter and more hungry to succeed.

So I thought I’d put this little article together for anyone that needs first-hand advice on stress fractures from a runner who has been there themselves. I know, I’m a saint.

But remember, I’m not a doctor so please take this advice casually and don’t sue me. These are just my personal experiences of having stress fractures.

Causes

Stress fractures are overuse injuries. They first came about in soldiers when they used to wear big heavy boots and go on training marches/runs. That’s why they’re sometimes referred to as ‘march fractures’.

If you get a stress fracture from running, you’re likely to have increased the mileage or upped your pace too quickly for your body to be able to handle. Intense track sessions – especially if your body is not conditioned for them – can also lead to stress fractures.

Minimalist running shoes – again, if you’re not used to wearing running shoes with little cushioning, can also lead to stress fractures.

Remember – a stress fracture isn’t actually a complete break in the bone, but a hairline crack where the bone is ‘stressed’.

Symptoms

Stress fractures will generally present with a similar set of symptoms, regardless of the location. You will feel some of all of the following:

  • A dull ache in the area of the stress fracture
  • The area of the stress fracture may feel hot to the touch
  • If the stress fracture is in your foot, you won’t be able to hop on that foot without severe pain
  • Run your hand over the affected area – if there is a definite point of pain deep within or a raised surface, you’ve located the stress fracture
  • If the stress fracture is in your upper leg or hip, it will be painful to sit for long periods of time such as when working or driving

Diagnosis

If you suspect you have a stress fracture, the best thing to do is see a doctor. They will give you an x-ray, which will show the stress fracture.

But note, the stress fracture will only present on an x-ray a little while after it has begun to heal – since the x-ray doesn’t show the break itself, but actually the calcium deposits that form around the bone to heal the area.

You can also pay privately to have an x-ray if you don’t feel your normal surgery times are inadequate.

Often, if you’ve had stress fractures in the past, you’ll know what the pain feels like and might not require an x-ray since just taking the time off to recover is best then follow up with a doctor if you’re still not healed after the normal timeframe of recovery.

Recovery

In the past, I’ve had both femoral and metatarsal stress fractures. My femoral stress fracture took approximately 4 months to heal and by that time, I was back to walking/jogging slowly.

My metatarsal stress fractures took approximately 6-8 weeks to heal and again, by that time I was back to walking/jogging slowly.

It’s important to remember that although stress fractures – at least from running causes – are usually quite straightforward to heal, there can be complications so always proceed with caution and continue to follow up with your doctor if you haven’t healed in a typical timeframe.

Personally, I laid off everything that made my stress fracture hurt. If I could cross-train without pain, I would – using the cross-trainer (elliptical), swimming or using the stationary bike.

Remember that if you’re in pain, your body is trying to tell you something – forcing yourself to exercise when in pain will only set you back and cause the injury to worsen. I know it’s hard but try to stay sane and remember that you WILL come back from this if you rest sensibly and give your body the best chance to heal.

I took a liquid calcium supplement (OsteoCare) as I’m a complete wimp when it comes to taking tablets and I do feel like this helped speed up the process and ensure I had all the calcium I needed to heal.

Remember also that it’s so important to realise why you got a stress fracture in the first place to avoid it happening again. So see a biomechanics expert who will be able to assess your running form to check whether your gait is inefficient and causing you injuries.

Hope you’ve found those tips useful and that you’re all enjoying your running :]

Keep up!

TRG