Treating Stress Fractures in the Foot

by Wellness Editor – MH

It’s bad enough to get a stress facture, but it’s even worse to fracture the same area twice. In October 2013, such a scenario befell Julio Jones, a wide receiver for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. During a nationally televised game against the New York Jets, the third-year pro reportedly suffered a fracture in his right foot. This is the same foot Jones fractured two years earlier, an injury that required the insertion of a screw in order to fix. Early reports indicate that Jones may miss the remainder of the 2013 season.

Broken bones are always a serious matter, whether they occur from traumatic injuries or from overuse. Stress fractures, the type of injury that knocked Jones out of commission, fall into the latter category. Of course, stress fractures don’t just bother professional athletes, as numerous people who play sports recreationally suffer this injury every year. Like Julio Jones, many of these patients sustain stress fractures in their feet. Recovering from and preventing future fractures in the foot requires a good deal of patience, care and effort.

The Many Parts of Your Feet

Though they make up a very small part of the body, your feet are actually fairly complex structures. There are 26 bones in each foot; considering that the human skeleton consists of 206 total bones, your two feet combined account for nearly one-fourth of the bones in your body. These bones allow your feet to fluidly bend and flex, in turn allowing the body to walk, jog and run.

Unfortunately, all of these bones mean that the feet are prime locations for bone fractures. If pushed too hard, one or more of those 26 bones can break under the pressure; an estimated 10 percent of stress fractures occur in the feet. Compounding the problem is that people subject their feet to a heavy workload, a fact that rings especially true for athletes. Foot stress fractures are a fairly common occurrence for those who partake in the following sports and activities:

  • Running
  • Track and Field
  • Basketball
  • Dance
  • Gymnastics
  • Tennis

Why Foot Bones Fracture

When engaged in strenuous physical activities, the body calls upon its muscles to run, jump and to perform numerous other movements. By extension, this means that the muscles in the feet often take a heavy pounding during sporting events. While they are usually up to the task, these muscles can become fatigued if overworked. Consequentially, they can no longer insulate the adjacent bones from the pressure placed upon the foot.

Stress fractures frequently strike the between the foot’s second and third metatarsals, two bones located towards the center of the feet. Other vulnerable areas include the heel bone (known as the calcaneus) and the navicular, a bone resting near the ankle joint.

While the many benefits of exercise are certainly well-documented, regular physical activity does increase the likelihood of stress fractures to a certain degree. Some people, after finally committing themselves to an exercise regimen, jump into their new routine with a bit too much enthusiasm. Muscles that are not used to such workouts can quickly grow tired, transferring their burden to nearby bones. For example, an ex-couch potato who tries running ten miles on his first run could very well break a bone in his foot.

Some other contributing factors for foot bone fractures are shown below:

  • Wearing worn-out or inappropriate footwear while performing strenuous activities.
  • Abruptly changing running surfaces, such as switching from grass to cement sidewalks
  • Altering your normal running technique. This can change how the body’s weight is distributed on the feet, potentially leading to injury.
  • Preexisting medical conditions such as osteoporosis, which causes bones to lose density and possibly fracture

The Recovery Process

If you suspect that one of the bones in your foot might have fractured, immediately cease performing any activities that could exacerbate the injury. It is not uncommon for people to dismiss small fractures as minor aches and pains, and to continue putting pressure on the damaged foot. This can increase the size of the fracture, and may cause the afflicted bone to break completely.

Though it can be rather difficult, try to avoid putting weight on the foot when walking. Applying ice packs to the injury, along with elevating the foot above heart level, can help alleviate swelling. Of course, it is highly advisable to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Should x-rays determine that the foot has sustained a fracture, the patient will be urged to temporarily avoid the activity responsible for the injury. While recovery times can vary, stress fractures in the feet usually need about six to eight weeks to heal. In the meantime, the patient may be assigned some protective footwear. Such footwear includes stiff-soled shoes, which keep the injured foot in a stable position. Other options include wooden-soled sandal and a removable short-leg fracture brace shoe. Crutches may also be needed to keep the body’s weight off the broken bone.

Fractures that affect the fifth metatarsal bones (located on the outside edge of both feet) often require a longer healing process than other bones in the foot. Because of this fact, the doctor may opt to apply a cast to the patient instead. Casts are used to immobilize damaged parts of the body, allowing them to heal in a timely manner. If surgery is necessary to heal the fracture, the afflicted bones are frequently reconnected with pins, screws and/or plates.

Once the fracture has fully healed, many patients are told to resume normal physical activities at a gradual pace. Placing an excessive amount of stress on a recently-healed foot could re-injure the bone.

Stress fractures in the feet are hardly unavoidable. Some tips that can help prevent broken foot bones include consuming an appropriate amount of vitamin D, wearing proper footwear and alternating jogging with other aerobic activities (cycling and swimming make for good options).

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