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What is an Ankle Stress Fracture?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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When a person gets a fracture in the ankle, it typically means that they have a break in the fibula or tibia bone, in close proximity to the foot at the end of these bones. Ankle fractures are quite common, but one type that may be slightly harder to notice at first is the ankle stress fracture. This results in a relatively small break to either of these bones, and it is usually not caused by a sudden impact injury. Instead an ankle stress fracture often results from repeating an activity performed over and over on a bone that is either weakened or that has weakened muscles. In this scenario a small break in the bone may occur, and even though these fractures are small, they still require treatment.

A plethora of reasons exist why people might develop an ankle stress fracture. Often, this injury occurs in athletes, especially if they are overtraining or pushing themselves in activities that involve much use of the feet. Alternately, those who are trying to establish a regular exercise pattern, especially one that includes activities like jumping, dancing, running/walking or bicycling, could be too active at first.

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When muscles that are built in part to help bones take repeated impact aren’t doing their job properly, injury can occur to the bones as the muscle repeatedly fails to absorb shock and protect them. Another potential cause is fundamental weakness in bones, as resulting from conditions like osteoporosis. If bone strength is poor, an activity done over and again could result in fracture. When either of these situations occurs, there is risk not only of an ankle stress fracture but a fracture happening in the foot bones.

Symptoms of an ankle stress fracture can include pain, especially when weight is placed on the affected foot. Pain may lessen or not be felt at all, whenever a person can rest the foot. Fractures can cause swelling and some bruising could be present too. One area of the ankle might hurt if it is touched.

While it might be easy to dismiss these symptoms as ankle sprain (and not go to the doctor), it’s really recommended people get medical help. Even though treatment might only involve rest and keeping off the foot, it’s possible to reinjure the foot or cause a more extensive break if treatment guidelines aren’t followed. Moreover, sometimes doctors take a more aggressive approach with an ankle stress fracture and ask patients to wear a cast or brace for a few weeks, or suggest surgery when a fracture isn’t healing properly. It’s also a good idea to understand cause of the fracture, especially if this is osteoporosis, so that certain activities could be avoided in the future that might result in another break or doctors could address deteriorating bone mass.

In general, treatment is usually rest for several weeks and possibly immobilization of the foot through casting or braces. When people start to return to activities, especially athletes, they may be given set limits on how much to do. Gradually restarting any form of exercise is recommended, since starting at full pace may easily result in a second ankle stress fracture. This last advice is also appropriate for anyone beginning a new sports activity; a pace that increases gradually is likely to be a good preventative to stress fractures.

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