Tips for Preventing Stress Fractures in Athletes

Posted on 
May 15, 2023

Just a few games into his second season with the Chicago Bulls, legendary basketball player Michael Jordan suffered a dreaded injury – a stress fracture in his foot. It was a devastating blow to the competitive Jordan and what was then an up-and-coming franchise.

Unfortunately, athletes are no strangers to stress fractures. In fact, 98% of all clinically diagnosed stress fractures occur in athletes of all ages and across disciplines.

These tiny cracks in a bone are caused by repetitive force and often coincide with a new training routine or the use of new equipment. They can also develop due to bone-weakening conditions, such as osteoporosis.

Stress fractures are most common in the lower leg and foot. In almost all cases, the area is tender to the touch. The pain typically ramps up over two or three weeks and worsens when the athlete is active.

Dr. Andrew Wohler, orthopedic surgeon and foot and ankle specialist at Forté, recommends coaches, trainers and parents seek out imaging, such as an MRI, for any injury that is not improving or returns after a period of rest.

“If the athlete has consistent pain that is activity specific and load specific, those are reasons to raise red flags and say, hey, we need to take a closer look at this,” says Wohler.

Stress fractures require weeks of rest – and in some cases, surgery – to heal fully. The process can be frustrating, as Michael Jordan can attest. As the story goes, Jordan secretly played pick-up games while rehabbing at the University of North Carolina without the greenlight from Bulls management, who thought he was resting.

There are steps you can take to prevent your athletes from experiencing a similar injury and temptation.

First and foremost, develop a training routine that gradually ramps up, as opposed to going to full intensity right away. Wohler says using proper footwear can also make a big difference.

“If you can bend the shoe 90 degrees, that’s going to submit your foot to a lot of stress because you have all that bending force that’s being applied to the bone,” says Wohler. “If possible, look for something more rigid, sturdier and more supportive.”

And if, despite your best efforts, stress fractures still develop, just remember: This injury doesn’t have to mean the end of the road. Just look at Jordan, who returned to the court and is widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time.

“There are ways to optimize healing,” says Wohler. “At Forté, we focus on encouraging bone health by supplementing vitamin D and calcium. Athletes are also subject to caloric needs. Make sure your athletes are eating enough and that their building blocks of nutrition are being met.”

These recommendations have been excerpted from Coaches Corner, a free monthly webinar series for coaches, athletic directors and athletic trainers. The series, developed and presented by Forté, in partnership with IHSAA, aims to arm coaching and support teams with helpful information to consider when working with their athletes. Subscribe online so you don’t miss an episode.

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