Out of the 206 bones in the human body, nearly one-fourth of them are in the foot. It is no wonder that fractures of the foot are quite common, with metatarsals being some of the most frequently broken bones. The metatarsals are the long slender bones of the mid-foot. Metatarsals swell when broken and can be painful, especially since the bones of the foot provide a great deal of support and movement.
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The structure of the human foot is a complex arrangement of muscles, bones, tendons and other soft tissues. There are 26 bones in the foot, with 19 of them in the toe bones (phalanges) and the metatarsals. The long slender metatarsal bones are found between the phalanges and the tarsal (heel and ankle) bones. The metatarsals act like a stiff lever to propel the ankle and foot. They help to support and balance the entire body.
The common symptoms of a broken metatarsal are swelling, pain and bruising appearing within a day or two of injury. The pain may come on gradually and is aggravated by walking, standing or other weight-bearing activities. A fractured metatarsal can cause "pinpoint pain" or pain at the fracture point that may continue for a few hours afterwards, but will likely go away after several hours of inactivity.
A broken metatarsal can be the result of two different types of bone fractures: stress fractures and traumatic fractures. Stress fractures cause tiny, hairline breaks in the bone and are typically brought about by repetitive stress. Athletes, especially ballet dancers, runners, soccer players and gymnasts, commonly suffer from stress fractures of the metatarsals. Traumatic fractures, also known as acute fractures are a result of a direct impact or blow to the foot, such as severely stubbing a toe. Traumatic fractures can be classified as either displaced or non-displaced. When the fracture is displaced the bone is broken in a manner that causes it to change position.
Since metatarsals swell when broken, swelling along with pain may be strong indicators of a fractured bone. It is important to keep weight off the foot until medical treatment is sought. Ice can be applied to reduce the swelling but no longer than 20 minutes at a time. Wrap ice in a towel or use an ice pack to avoid direct contact of ice with the skin. The primary treatment for stress fractures is rest and avoidance of the activity that most likely caused the break, for at least three or four weeks. With a displaced traumatic fracture, the bone ends of the break have to be realigned and kept immobile while healing takes place. Non-displaced fractures may also require immobilisation with the use of a short-leg walking cast, a rigid flat-bottom shoe or a brace for six to eight weeks.
It is important to have a broken metatarsal properly treated to avoid developing serious complications such as arthritis, a deformity that can result in ill-fitting shoes, chronic pain or a failure to heal completely. Often times with stress fractures, the break will not show up for two to three weeks after the injury occurred.
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