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You Can Head Off Stress Fractures

Whether you're an avid basketball player or a weekend hiker, you may be at risk for a stress fracture if you overdo it.

A stress fracture occurs when you increase the length or intensity of your workout too quickly. Your muscles become so fatigued by the extra work that they transfer the stress to the bones—most often in the lower leg—and a tiny crack appears. A stress fracture can also occur when you workout on a different surface or use improper equipment, says the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).

With proper rest, your bones have the time they need to repair any microscopic fractures or grow stronger so they can take the wear and tear of an activity.

Doing too much too soon is a big mistake. In other words, it's very important to have realistic expectations for your body.

Be sure to check with your health care provider before beginning a fitness program. Once you get the OK, don't try to run 10 miles or join a football team if channel surfing has been your main activity for years. Start out slowly, and increase your level of activity gradually.

Building up slowly is also important to let your bones get used to the type of surface where you exercise. If you walk or run, for instance, start on flat and soft surfaces. Specifically, dirt paths tend to be better than asphalt, and asphalt can be better than concrete.

Invest in athletic shoes that provide good cushioning and support for the arches of your feet. Replace your shoes when they show signs of wear and try to shop at stores that can offer guidance for your specific needs.

Women seem to develop stress fractures more often than men, the AAOS says. That may be because women are more likely to have eating disorders and osteoporosis. As a woman's bone mass decreases, the chances of getting a stress fracture increase. Make sure your diet provides enough calcium and vitamin D for strong bones.

If you're in pain the minute you start walking or running and the pain doesn't subside when you stop or after icing, it's time to get help. Your health care provider can come up with a diagnosis and treatment to put you back on track. The most important treatment is rest, the AAOS says. Most stress fractures take two to four weeks to heal with decreased activity and protective footwear. In some instances, certain bones may take up to eight weeks to heal, depending on your particular situation.