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Physical therapy for stress fractures

Physical therapy for stress fractures

Physical therapy for stress fractures

Stress fractures are a common problem, with more than 200,000 estimated cases in the United States every year.  These tiny cracks in your bones can be quite painful and can get in the way of normal physical activities like walking.  They can also take a long time to resolve if they aren’t allowed to heal properly.  With the right care, however, and a good physical therapy routine, you can speed up your recovery time.

What exactly are stress fractures?

A stress fracture is a type of overuse injury.  It is a tiny crack that forms along a bone after repeated physical force or pressure.  Activities that may cause a stress fracture to develop include:

  • Running
  • Jumping
  • Coughing

People who begin intense exercise too quickly without building up strength are more prone to stress fractures.  Weaker bones, which can develop from osteoporosis or nutrient deficiencies, can also make a stress fracture more likely.

How can you tell if you have a stress fracture?

Stress fractures build from continuous minor trauma over time, rather than occurring from one major event; therefore, symptoms of a stress fracture can develop slowly. As a result, it can take a while before you notice what is happening.  Signs to look for include:

  • Burning pain in a localized area
  • An area that may hurt more when you press on it
  • Pain or soreness that has been increasing over time (over many days)
  • Pain that increases with physical activity or when weight is placed on the affected area
  • The pain usually ceases when the activity is stopped, but if the fracture becomes severe enough it can ache even after the activity is over

You will need to visit a doctor for an x-ray, MRI, CT scan, or bone density scan to determine for sure if you have a fracture.  Your doctor will also be able to recommend the right treatment and therapy for recovery.

Treating stress fractures

Depending on its severity, there are several courses of action that can help a stress fracture heal:

  • Resting the injured area and refraining from physical activities that exacerbate the problem
  • A walking boot or brace, which may have to be worn anywhere from a few weeks to a few months
  • Rehabilitation to restore muscle strength
  • Surgery, if the fracture is severe enough (e.g. pinning the bone)

Why use physical therapy for stress factures

One reason why a bone may be undergoing excess force is because of an imbalance in muscle strength.  When a muscle is weak, the other muscles around it have to work harder to make up for it.  If this happens, a bone may have to take on the extra burden and can eventually fracture under the stress.

Following a stress fracture or other injury, your body may attempt to favor the hurting area by putting less weight or strain on it.  This also can cause an imbalance where other muscles or parts of the body are forced to overwork.

In either case, you will need to work to strengthen any weak muscles and restore balance to the muscles in your body.  Getting your muscles to function properly again will eliminate any imbalances that contributed to or arose from a stress fracture and can help prevent one from happening in the future.  The latter is especially important, because having already had one stress fracture greatly increases your risk of developing another.

Initial rehabilitation

During the first few weeks, the affected area needs to rest and heal.  The goal of physical training during this period is to keep up with aerobic fitness without putting weight or stress on the injured area.  Weight-bearing exercises are avoided.

Here are some good exercises that your doctor or physical therapist may have you perform while resting your injury:

  • Water aerobics
  • Cycling
  • Upper-body weight training (for lower extremity stress fractures)

Physical therapy to restore muscle competency

Once the bone becomes pain-free, physical therapy to work the muscles around the injury can begin.  Weight bearing exercises will be gradually reintroduced, to gently encourage bone remodeling for a complete recovery.  Your physical therapist will also begin giving you specific exercises to work the muscles around the injured site and nearby joints.  The goal is to strengthen the muscles so that they can move your joints in a way that doesn’t add extra stress to the injured site and to better absorb impact forces, better protecting your bones.  The muscles worked, and exercises assigned will depend on where your fracture is and what caused it to develop in the first place.

Wherever your stress fracture might be, plenty of rest and a good physical therapy regimen with our physical therapy specialists in Boston, Braintree, Plymouth and Weymouth will help get you back to your normal activities in no time.