As a runner, you put more stress on your feet than the average person. Over time, all of that pounding can lead to injuries, one of which is a metatarsal stress fracture. Since this injury won't heal without you taking time off and paying it some careful attention, it's important that, as a runner, you know how to recognize, prevent, and treat metatarsal stress fractures.
How to Recognize Metatarsal Stress Fractures
Metatarsal stress fractures are basically breaks in the bones that form the top of your foot. Most runners break one of the metatarsal bones closer to the inside of their foot, since this part of the foot absorbs more shock while you are running. However, you can also fracture the bones towards the outside of your foot -- this is most likely if you tend to supinate, or roll your ankle outward, as you run.
The pain of a metatarsal stress fracture often starts off as a dull ache. It may not be noticeable when you first get up, but it will worsen throughout the day as you walk around, and it will be pretty painful at the end of a run. If you keep running in spite of the pain, the pain may take on a sharper, more pronounced quality. Eventually, the pain may become constant -- appearing as soon as you step on your foot in the morning.
Some stress fractures also cause swelling and redness in the foot. However, you should not assume that pain in the absence of swelling does not indicate a stress fracture.
How to Treat a Stress Fracture
As soon as you suspect you might have a stress fracture, stop running, and spend as much time off of your feet as possible. Visit a podiatrist for a diagnosis. They can X-ray your foot and determine if there is a fracture in one of the bones.
Once you are diagnosed, your podiatrist will formulate a treatment plan. You will probably need to take at least four to six weeks off from running. Depending on the severity of the fracture, you may or may not need to wear a protective boot or "soft case" for a few weeks. If you need to stay in shape, your doctor may give you the go-ahead to do some pool running, cycling, or elliptical training.
To help ease the pain and inflammation associated with your stress fracture, your podiatrist will likely recommend icing your foot several times per day. You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers, like naproxen, to control the pain. Do not, however, use these pain relievers to mask the pain so you can go running. Doing so will just make your injury worse.
How to Prevent a Stress Fracture
If your feet are currently healthy, or if you suffered a stress fracture in the past and want to prevent future ones, there are plenty of steps you can take. First, make sure you are wearing proper running shoes that fit your feet comfortably. Visit a local running store for a fitting if you're not sure which shoes are the best choice. Also, make sure you increase your training load slowly to give your feet time to adapt to the higher mileage. The 10% rule, which states that you should not add more than 10% mileage each week, is a good guideline to follow.
Another way to reduce your risk of stress fractures is to run on softer surfaces. Do more workouts on grass or on the track and fewer on the road or sidewalks.
Metatarsal stress fractures are a real pain in the foot! Contact a foot doctor to learn more.