To succeed as a long-distance runner, a person must have more than just the necessary physical prowess. A tenacious drive and a highly competitive spirit are nearly as important as a pair of strong legs. But a striving, eager attitude can also work against someone who is suffering from a stress fracture, an injury for which the best form of treatment is proper rest.
“A stress fracture is a complete or incomplete fracture of a bone that is caused by an overload of the capacity of the bone to handle stressors across it,” explains orthopedist David N. Palmer, MD.
“It is the same as a broken bone, but it presents differently. It is not something that occurs after a fall or a major trauma.”
Dr. Palmer has seen this overload typically caused by multiple small infractions to the bone through activities such as long-distance running or one that the patient has assumed abruptly, such as a military boot camp.
“A recruit who starts boot camp and is abruptly made to start marching or jogging without having done it before is an example of this,” Palmer says. “This is a common issue and these recruits typically get stress fractures in their feet or legs called marching fractures.”
Whether you get a stress fracture wearing Army boots or running sneakers, the healing process is the same.
“Stress fractures are treated with rest,” Palmer says. “Once the offending problem or overload of the bone has been taken away, the body’s ability to heal can take place.”
This is the time when competitive runners must use their inner drive not to win but to stay out of the race.
“Healing can take 4 weeks to 3-4 months,” Palmer says. “If the patient is healthy and has normal healing capabilities, it should not take more than about 3 months to heal a stress fracture as long as the patient is compliant with staying away from the offending activity.”
Compliance is not always easy, Palmer observes.
“Patients can often be eager to restart their sport,” Palmer says. “They do not want to stay off their leg, for example, because they are trying to reach a certain goal. But it is crucial that they do stay off the injured leg for the recommended period of time.”
Restarting the activity too soon could cause a recurrence of the stress fracture. In some cases, the recurring fracture could potentially require surgical treatment. But even if not, the injury will still take the patient even further away from their goal.
“If a stress fracture does recur,” Palmer says, “then typically it takes even longer to heal.”