My tibial stress fracture

Warning: This is a long post. It’s all about the stress fracture in my right leg.

It started as a tiny twinge, a little pain that seemed connected to some tendon issues I’ve been working out since last fall. So I kept to my carefully constructed marathon training plan. When I stopped at a drinking fountain around 15 or 18 miles into a 20-mile run on Aug. 8, it felt worse. When I stopped for good at the end of the 20 miles, I was struggling not to limp. I ignored it and had a fun meal with a bunch of Bay Area running buddies.

The pain got worse, and I knew something in my right leg was mad. The next day, Monday, was a rest day. Tuesday was a normal run with my running club, but I only ran a couple easy miles due to the pain. Things were not right. I stayed optimistic, giving my leg some rest because I was in a recovery week and could ease off the training. The pain didn’t go away.

I was convinced it was a tendon issue, but I broke down and went to the doctor (a rarity for me). My insurance had just changed to Kaiser, which I was less than thrilled about, but they got me an appointment the next morning, and I had the obligatory x-ray, though I knew it wasn’t going to do anything. I was right; the doctor called me that afternoon to say the x-ray didn’t show anything and that she was referring me to an orthopedic doctor — a routine I know well due to my lifetime of foot/leg issues. Here’s where I became a fan of Kaiser: I saw an ortho doctor the next day, and he ordered up a bone scan for that afternoon. With my previous HMO, that would have taken eons to get authorized.

The morning of Aug. 19, I went to the “nuclear medicine” department, where they injected dye into a vein (after several failed attempts at FINDING a vein). They informed me I would not glow in the dark. I beg to differ, on account of my pale skin, but that’s beside the point. I returned a few hours later, and they put me in an MRI-type of machine to take what it basically a long x-ray. The dye makes certain blood cells stand out, so if they’re trying to heal a microscopic crack in a bone, they’ll show up as a big cluster. I’d done some research on this, and knew that if I had a stress fracture, it would look like this (taken from this site):

You can see the bone there, and then that big black spot is the stress fracture. I was still convinced that was not what I had, because the pain wasn’t restricted to one place. Two years ago I had a metatarsal stress fracture (toe bone in the foot) in the other leg, and I could pinpoint the exact place it hurt.

So I waited through this long x-ray-type process. This was not helped by the fact that I had to lay on my other hip, which I’d banged up falling off my bike while trying to learn clip-in pedals. (Don’t ask.) Along the way, I learned that the lab lady had run several marathons but doesn’t run anymore because she doesn’t have time. This excuse always seems false to me, because the busiest people can still make time for the things they truly want.

Anyway, the picture were finally taken and the lady said a radiologist had to read them but probably wouldn’t get to it until the next morning, a Friday. That meant the orthopedic doctor likely wouldn’t get back to me until Monday. I asked if I could see the scans, since they were right there on her computer screen, and she said yes.

I took one look and burst into tears. Now, I cry about two or three times a year at most, and I hate it. But when I saw that big, black, ugly SPOT on my leg, exactly where it hurt, I knew what it meant. The lady said she couldn’t tell me the results, but the look on her face said I was right. I stumbled out of the room and through the long Kaiser building, hiding my tear-covered face. Even then I knew that people get far worse diagnoses in that same building, but I couldn’t help it. I knew I was out for at least eight weeks, but sometimes these things can take months to heal. The ortho doctor confirmed my own diagnosis the following Monday.

I was set to race a half-marathon in nine days. I’d been gearing up and training diligently for the Portland Marathon, and training was going well enough that I really could see a sub-4-hour marathon in my future. I would stay there with old friends, and the nerdy part part of me was so excited the race fell on 10/10/10 (yes, I registered for it solely because of those two reasons). And I’d been one of the lucky ones to get picked in the New York City Marathon in November. Not only were my fall running plans gone, but I’d lost $360 in non-refundable registration fees, as well as my bid to qualify for the Marathon Maniacs club by completing three marathons within 90 days.

Today marks four weeks since I saw that ugly black spot on the scan of my leg, and almost six weeks since the pain started. My leg feels much better than it did a few weeks ago. The inevitable emotional roller coaster ride, triggered by endorphin withdrawal (that happens when you’re used to running 30-45 miles a week), is over. But I still long every day to be able to run. I see people running and I get sad. On my recent trip to Portland, I wanted so badly to run along the beautiful trails, and through a rain shower. I get frustrated over something and want to go run to clear my head.

But it will get better. Perhaps this mandatory break is what my tendon wanted, too. I will run again, and I will love it that much more.

3 Responses to My tibial stress fracture

  1. thanks for posting about your stress fracture…the twinge is scarily similar to what i am experiencing…
    sorry you had to experience the fracture but as you stated, this mandatory break has a positive side to it. are you able to walk long distances or does your physician want you to totally rest your leg? you’ll be out there soon enough. :)

    hoping for a speedy recovery!

    • Estella, if you do have a stress fracture, the only way to fix it is to stop all impact exercise. But it could also be something in the tendons, so if you have health insurance, I’d get to a doctor to try ruling out/confirming a stress fracture. And, while mine is only a twinge now, at first it was extremely painful and I struggled — sometimes failing — not to limp (didn’t want to cause problems in the OTHER leg).
      I’ll be trying to take some steps to prevent this from happening again, but the reassuring thing for me is that I’ve never had a bit of trouble after a foot stress fracture two years ago in the other leg. In many regards, a stress fracture is actually easier to recover from than a soft tissue problem.

      The doctor, and my own research, basically said not to do anything that makes the leg hurt. I really couldn’t do any extra walking for a while. I recently did several-mile walks on trails, and that actually felt fine. So did driving. Certain shoes make it flare up — like my running shoes, interestingly.

      Thank you for the comment, and I really hope your twinges go away!

  2. yikes! i’m getting a little worried. my twinges and pain are ok, not severe. i think i just have to get things in alignment. good to hear you’re able to walk trails and drive without discomfort or pain.

    i thought i had a foot or ankle fracture when i started training for my first half marathon last yr. i also thought they were old fractures from a car accident i had years ago that were not diagnosed. saw my doc earlier this yr & nope, no fracture, just a high arch and she recommended super feet insoles. oh yeah, there’s a chance i have a bulging disc, too.
    well, i did get immediate relief for the impingment on the top of my right foot, but i’ve been experiencing pretty intense right shin and ankle pain more so lately but it started especially when i began running vs walking. i’m a run/walker (Galloway method) right now but hope to increase my run/walk split.
    i’m crapping my pants a little because i mirror some of your experiences. i dread getting into my shoes for a run – honestly, i would rather be barefoot. yeah, i’m scheduled for my annual in november so i’ll ask her then…i want to finish the 3 other half marathons for the year. even if i have to walk. i know, i know… :(
    thanks for the brain food, layla. i’m going to send my doc an email to see if i should come in sooner vs later. my shin has a dull twinge today but now i’m thinking it’s more likely my ankle and shin are compensating for some misalignment.

    thx! :) (sorry for the long reply. it happens.)