There are fractures that involve a major break in a bone, and then there are stress fractures – a type of bone abnormality that athletes often experience. What is a stress fracture and will one heal without treatment?
What is a Stress Fracture?
A stress fracture is an incomplete break in a bone. Stress fractures are usually simple “hairline fractures” that develop from repetitive trauma and overuse. These fractures occur more commonly in runners and athletes, particularly those who train too hard too quickly – and they’re a major source of frustration since they require time off the field – or off the running trail until they heal.
What Causes a Stress Fracture?
Cells that build bone are called osteoblasts, and the cells that break it down are called osteoclasts. The interplay between these two types of cells is ongoing – as bone continually remodels itself. If too much stress is placed on a bone, it overwhelms the ability of the osteoblasts to lay down new material. The osteoclasts continue to break down bone, but the osteoblasts can’t rebuild it fast enough. This weakens the boney structure and creates conditions that are ripe for a stress fracture. This usually occurs when too much repetitive stress is placed on a bone.
Stress fractures are most common in athletes who do high-impact exercise such as running and jumping, especially when they’re out of condition. A weekend warrior who hits the streets without a good pair running shoes, and tries to run a half-marathon after languishing in an easy chair for a few months, is a perfect set-up for a stress fracture. It also happens to seasoned athletes who increase the intensity of their training over a short period of time.
Healing Stress Fractures: Will a Stress Fracture Heal on Its Own?
A stress fracture won’t heal without rest, particularly if the fracture occurs in an area without a good blood supply. It takes at least six to eight weeks of rest to heal a stress fracture – sometimes more. Athletes who continue to run or jump with a fracture not only experience pain, but also increase their risk of developing larger breaks that won’t mend without surgery.
Treating a Stress Fracture
Some doctors help stress fractures heal by applying an air cast. This promotes blood flow to the area and takes some of the pressure off of the weakened bone. Physical therapy to strengthen muscles helps reduce the force the bone experiences during exercise; while ice relieves the pain and swelling. While a stress fracture heals, aquatic exercise helps to keep muscles conditioned without doing further damage.
Healing Stress Fractures: The Bottom Line
Most stress fractures heal in six to eight weeks – but only with rest. Continuing to do high-impact exercise can lead to more serious damage. So, take it easy and be patient. Most stress fractures heal with time.
Medscape.com. “Stress Fracture: Treatment & Medication