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Injury Spotlight: Stress Fractures

From fatigue and cramps to sprains and strains, most athletes are familiar with the consequences of pushing themselves too hard. What they might not know is that failing to maintain an appropriate level of physical exertion can lead to broken bones. Stress fractures, while not as debilitating as acute fractures, are a serious threat to athletes.

While the exact cause of stress fractures is not known, they are commonly thought to result from the “overloading” of bones. One way in which this can happen, says David Stone, MD, a physician for UPMC Sports Medicine, is through a sudden, intense muscle contraction.

Another common cause is the repetitive overuse of one or more of the muscles. When this happens, the bone underneath the muscle fails to adapt to the overuse, and breaks.

“At the hip and foot, the skeletal muscles act like shock absorbers," says Dr. Stone. "If they are ineffective or overwhelmed, then the bones have to absorb that shock. If the bone is not permitted to recover, there is a danger of it breaking down.”

In the early stages, the fracture is likely to exhibit itself only during activity. The tissue around the bone becomes swollen, tender, and painful. Eventually, these symptoms may become constant and get considerably worse at night. Due to the nature of the injury, the onset of symptoms is usually gradual over a two- to three-week period. 

Often, the best way for clinicians to diagnose a stress fracture is through a bone scan. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is commonly used in conjunction with bone scans to diagnose stress fractures.

Once the injury has been diagnosed as a stress fracture, the best method of treatment is a period of rest and rehabilitation that allows the injured bone to follow its natural course of repair and strengthening. For most stress fractures, this period will last anywhere from four to eight weeks.

For the serious athlete, a certain amount of musculoskeletal stress is unavoidable. For the athlete who wants to avoid injuries that can sideline them for months at a time, follow three simple rules.

  • Retain strength and muscle tone
  • Allow the body to rest between workouts
  • Gradually increase intensity and workout length

The UPMC Sports Performance program can help you prevent injuries while improving your athletic performance. For more information, visit us online or call 412-432-3600. 

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