Stress Fracture in Heel
A heel fracture or stress fracture is a common injury that means you have a fissure or crack (not a complete break) in your heel bone. Heel fractures result from physical force (stress) that’s stronger than the heel bone’s ability to absorb that stress properly. This stress might happen all at once (with a sudden blow to the heel), or over time (with overuse and repeated smaller blows).
Stress fractures of the heel bone can result in extreme heel pain. In this article we’ll help you understand what a broken foot feels like, common causes of heel stress fractures, and treatment options.
What Does a Broken Foot Feel Like?
If you have broken your heel bone (calcaneus) fracture is in the calcaneus, you will likely find it difficult and painful to put much (or any) weight on the affected foot. You may notice heel pain, discomfort, and swelling even when resting the fractured heel.
The specific location on the heel where the fracture occurred will most likely be very tender to the touch. Pain from a stress fracture is typically worse during physical activities or exercise, especially high-impact exercises like running, basketball, or soccer.
For many heel fractures, the pain comes on very suddenly as a result of a fall or a sudden leap to a hard surface, where a small crack is created in the bone. However, in other cases the fracture doesn’t happen all at once–rather, the final break occurs after several days, weeks, or months of high-intensity physical activity without proper rest that causes micro-injuries and weakness in the bone. For any fracture, look for these hallmark symptoms:
- Pain that gets worse and worse the longer you stay on your feet
- Pain that is most intense in one spot on the heel (although the pain may radiate out to other areas) and is painful to the touch
- Swelling or redness in the affected foot
- Pain that improves somewhat with a long period of rest
Is My Heel Pain a Stress Fracture or Something Else?
If the pain in your foot or ankle doesn’t quite match up with the symptoms above, you may have a different kind of foot condition.
Some of the most common foot conditions that can mimic the pain of a stress fracture in the heel include the following:
Plantar Fasciitis: Stress fracture and plantar fasciitis can both cause intense heel pain and often result from intense exercise or high-impact activities. However, unlike a stress fracture, the heel pain from plantar fasciitis is worst in the morning and improves somewhat once the plantar fascia ligament stretches out.
Plantar Rupture or Tear: Like a fracture, plantar tears or ruptures can onset suddenly and result in intense pain as the plantar fascia tears or completely ruptures. The location of the pain is the biggest telltale sign here: If you have ruptured or torn your plantar fascia, the pain will be localized along the bottom of your foot, and may be accompanied by a popping sound.
Achilles Tendonitis or Torn Achilles Tendon: Your achilles tendon connects your calf muscle to your heel bone. If the injury is to your Achilles tendon, you’ll feel the pain at the base of your ankle, just above your heel bone. You’re likely to notice pain, swelling, difficulty walking, and difficulting flexing your foot.
Causes of a Heel Stress Fractures
A stress fracture of the heel can either happen suddenly (with a fall, a hard landing, or a sudden blow to the foot), or after prolonged, repeated pressure on the foot. Individuals that run long distances are extremely susceptible to this type of injury.
You may also be more susceptible to stress fractures in the heel if you have brittle or weak bones because of osteoporosis, a vitamin D deficiency, or are taking certain medications. The following factors can also increase your risk of a heel stress fracture:
- Suddenly and dramatically increasing the intensity of a workout or physical activity without properly building up endurance in the muscles and ligaments that surround the heel.
- Walking, running, or playing sports on hard surfaces
- Wearing shoes that don’t fit well, or absorb impact properly
- Sudden trauma to the foot, after a hard landing or a fall where the heel absorbs the impact first
Treating and Diagnosing a Fracture of the Heel Bone
If left untreated, the pain from a stress fracture is likely to worsen or even become a more severe break. If you suspect a fracture, you’ll want to schedule a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible for an X-ray of your foot.
Your doctor will ask you about symptoms and how the injury happened, then perform an exam and X-rays. At times, the fracture may be difficult to see because it is so tiny. However, depending on your symptoms your doctor may treat you for a stress fracture anyway. Depending on the severity of your heel fracture you will likely need to wear a walking boot or crutches. Recovery time from this type of injury usually takes 6 to 8 weeks. It is important to rest and stay off your feet during this time. Your doctor will also likely recommend icing the injury for 10-15 minute intervals during the day, taking with an Ace Bandage for Stability, and keeping the foot elevated to avoid further injury.
Take good care of your injured heel even after you begin feeling better. It’s very important to wear supportive, properly fitting shoes and rest regularly during any kind of high impact activity. It’s also important to understand that plantar fasciitis may appear soon after a stress fracture, while your uninjured foot has been overcompensating.