Breaking free from stress fractures

When working out, you might like to test your limits, pushing yourself one more mile or adding another weight to your routine. You keep the motto “no pain, no gain” at the forefront of your mind.

No doubt, pushing yourself can increase your fitness level, but you have to know the limit.

If you push too hard, you could end up with a debilitating stress fracture, or worse. Instead, learn how to prevent stress fractures and keep yourself safe during rigorous exercise.

Preventing Stress Fractures

Whether you’re a beginner fitness enthusiast or seasoned athlete, you should take injury seriously. In the case of a stress fracture, the injury occurs when your muscle becomes weak and unable to bear the strain of your physical activity.

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The muscle then transfers that stress to the bone where it produces a tiny yet debilitating break. Most of the time, these stress fractures happen because an athlete lacked sufficient rest periods or because he increased his intensity too quickly.

No matter your age or fitness level, you can experience a stress fracture from such improper exercise. On the other hand, you can also prevent one from happening with a proper training schedule, rest and cross training.

1. First, you should make sure that you’re using the proper gear during your exercise. For example, many runners and walkers get stress fractures because they’re wearing old or insufficient shoes. Be sure that your gear is up-to-date and actually protects your body from injury for your specific exercise.

2. Next, make sure that you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet. These nutrients ensure strong and healthy bones and can keep them from fracturing as easily. In addition, make sure that you’re eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods, loading up on fruits and vegetables.

3. Now, you can actually move on to training. If you haven’t been active for a while, remember to take things slowly.

Create a schedule for yourself that requires you to build up to a certain intensity over several months. You can also aim for a goal, like a contest or race, and then take a few weeks off once you reach that goal.

4. During the training period, make sure that you’re using proper form for your choice of exercise. Many gyms have mirrors to help you in this area.

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5. Finally, any time that you change up your routine, work out on new turf, or incorporate a cross-training sport, you should decrease your intensity. Even if you’re used to an activity or intensity, a new routine or location may cause excess stress on your muscles. Give your body time to adjust.

Who’s at Risk?

While any athlete should take these precautions, certain people have a higher risk of developing stress fractures. According to the Mayo Clinic, women usually develop stress fractures more often than men.

If a woman has abnormal periods, she increases her risk even further due to a possible hormonal imbalance. This imbalance can often lead to reduced bone mass and fracture.

Similarly, according to a recent report from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, female runners with a BMI of 19 or less have a high chance of sustaining an injury like a fracture. Much of this risk comes from the woman’s absence of muscle mass, forcing her bones to absorb any stress from exercise.

In addition to these risk groups, people with previous stress fractures, foot issues or osteoporosis have a higher chance for injury as well.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you are suffering from a stress fracture, you will usually feel pain in a specific area during and just after exercise. The pain will usually decrease during rest. You may also see redness or swelling around the painful area.

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To solidify a diagnosis, your doctor will likely need an imaging test. He may opt for a bone scan or MRI over a normal x-ray due to the small size of the fracture.

Once the doctor has a solid diagnosis, he will recommend treatment based on the size and location of the fracture. For most cases, you will simply need complete rest from the activity that caused it for several months.

If the fracture is severe, you may need a brace or boot. Finally, once the fracture has healed, you will want to take the above precautions for preventing a future injury.

Take your safety during exercise seriously. Again, if you raise your intensity too quickly or don’t give your muscles enough rest, you’ll be risking a stress fracture. While you do want to challenge yourself, do so gradually and reduce the intensity any time you change up your routine. Taking these precautions will ultimately mean more time in the gym long-term and less time recuperating on the couch.

This article first appeared on AskDrManny.com.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.