Running, jogging and various leg exercises are generally considered to be good for the body. And to be sure, they generally are; in fact, we could probably write an article or two on the benefits of these activities. Unfortunately, the extremities of the body can only handle so much stress succumbing to injury. By placing too much of a burden on the lower body, avid runners and gym rats alike wind up hurting their legs and feet. One common type of “overuse” injury is stress fractures, which can strike repeatedly and sideline the body for weeks on end. As troublesome as they might be, stress fractures are far from inevitable; by making some adjustments in your exercise regimen, you can ensure that your body doesn’t suffer any unnecessary wear and tear.
A Small Injury, But A Big Problem
The word “stress” is typically associated with mental angst and anxiety. Stress fractures, however, are purely a physical malady. A stress fracture occurs when a small crack develops in one of the body’s bones. These cracks typically appear after the bone has been overtaxed and overexerted. Such injuries usually strike the lower leg bones (the tibia and fibula) or the feet, and tend to be most prevalent in those in participate in activities that utilize these areas (such as basketball, gymnastics, tennis and dancing).
A number of people experience stress fractures soon after picking up a new sport or activity. For example, people who start running after years of living a sedentary lifestyle often push themselves too hard. In response, the body attempts to prevent damage by shipping calcium to the affected bones. If this self-maintenance mechanism in unable to keep up with the demands placed upon it, the afflicted bones become weak and may fracture under the pressure. These injuries may initially start as mircofractures before growing into stress fractures.
Though stress fractures involve significant damage to the bone, many patients do not initially realize they have sustained an injury. Unlike broken or dislocated bones, which immediately cripple the patient’s ability to move the affected area, stress fractures can be minor enough to only induce pain during exercise or strenuous physical activities. Since such pain often goes away while the body is at rest, the patient may dismiss this problem as a minor inconvenience and continue to exercise as normal. Of course, this only exacerbates the fracture, causing the pain to become all the more noticeable. If not properly treated, this pain may start to occur while the patient isn’t exercising, and the afflicted body part may begin to swell and turn red. In addition, areas with fractured bones are very sensitive to touch.
Based on what you’ve read so far, you might think that stress fractures occur exclusively beneath the kneecaps. In fact, small bone cracks can develop in the arms, spine and ribs. These fractures are generally mild and have a lower chance of causing future fractures. Consequentially, doctors usually refer to such injuries as “low risk fractures.” Stress fractures in the body’s lower extremities, in contrast, are much more likely to lead to recurring fractures and weakened bones. These fractures are often labeled “high risk” injuries.
In many cases, recovering from a stress fracture is a relatively straightforward process. First and foremost, the patient is strongly advised to rest the damaged area, and to avoid activities and exercises that could further aggravate the injury. If the stress fracture is located in the leg or foot, the patient should avoid walking when possible. To alleviate swelling, either an ice pack or a cold compress should be applied to the fracture at regular intervals. A good rule of thumb is to ice the injury every 3 hours for 15 minute periods. Doctors usually recommend taking an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as Tylenol or Advil, to reduce nagging pain.
A particularly bad high-risk fracture may require a more advanced treatment regimen, including the input of an orthopedic doctor. These doctors specialize in treating conditions and injuries associated with the musculoskeletal system, which includes your bones. If the fracture is severe enough, the orthopedic doctor could advise wearing a splint or brace. In rare cases, surgery is needed for the patient to make a complete recovery.
Keeping your Bones Safe and Strong
The looming risk of stress fractures doesn’t mean you have to avoid exercise altogether. By being mindful of your body’s limitations, it’s easy to enjoy the benefits of physical activity without suffering any unintended consequences.
Avoid Exercise Overkill – At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it bears repeating those new to exercise should refrain from doing too much, too soon. When developing an exercise program, remember to seek the advice of your doctor.
Adjust Your Exercise Routine – Overuse injuries occur not only from exercising in an overly intense manner, but also from working the same area too often. Running every day, for instance, could easily overburden your legs and feet. Instead, try alternating high-impact activities (such as running and jumping jacks) with low-impact exercises, which include biking, swimming and walking.
Wear High-Quality Footwear – Some people, wary of plunking down $50 to $100 on new shoes, will wear a pair of sneakers until they literally start to fall apart. Though they might still feel comfy, worn-out running shoes provide little protection against stress for your feet and legs, especially when running. The pounding your lower body takes while running is considerable; the amount of force generated by each step can equal up to three times your body weight per square inch. A quality pair of new running shoes offers a good deal of insulation against such an assault. For some people with weaker-than-average feet, sole inserts might prove especially useful.
Get More Vitamin D and Calcium – Virtually everyone knows about the effect of vitamin D and calcium on your bones. Simply put, your body needs a steady supply of both nutrients to keep your bones in good shape. The average adult (ages 19 to 50) needs about 600 Individual Units (IU) of vitamin D daily. As for calcium, men and women over the age of 18 require 1000 milligrams per day, an amount that increases to 1200 mg after age 50.