Surgical versus conservative treatment for high-risk stress fractures of the lower leg (anterior tibial cortex, navicular and fifth metatarsal base): a systematic review

Br J Sports Med. 2015 Mar;49(6):370-6. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-093246. Epub 2014 Aug 19.


Aim: To compare surgical and conservative treatment for high-risk stress fractures of the anterior tibial cortex, navicular and proximal fifth metatarsal.

Methods: Systematic searches of CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, SPORTDiscus and PEDro were performed to identify relevant prospective and retrospective studies. Two reviewers independently extracted data and assessed methodological quality. Main outcomes were return to sport and complication rate.

Results: 18 studies were included (2 anterior tibia (N=31), 8 navicular (N=200) and 8 fifth metatarsal (N=246)). For anterior tibial fracture, no studies on initial surgery were eligible. Conservative treatment resulted in high complication rates and few cases returned to sport. For navicular fracture, a weighted mean return to sport of 22 for conservative and 16 weeks for surgical treatment was found. Six weeks of non-weightbearing cast was mostly used as conservative treatment. Surgical procedures varied widely. For the fifth metatarsal fracture, weighted mean return to sport was 19 for conservative and 14 weeks for surgical treatment. Surgery consisted of intramedullary screw fixation or tension band wiring. For conservative methods, insufficient details were reported. Overall, there was a high risk of bias; sample sizes were small and GRADE level of evidence was low.

Conclusions: Strong conclusions for surgical or conservative therapy for these high-risk stress fractures cannot be drawn; quality of evidence is low and subjected to a high risk of bias. However, there are unsatisfying outcomes of conservative therapy in the anterior tibia. The role of initial surgery is unknown. For the navicular, surgery provided an earlier return to sport; and when treated conservatively, weightbearing should be avoided. For the fifth metatarsal, surgery provided the best results. Treatment decision-making would greatly benefit from further prospective research.

Study registration number: PROSPERO database of systematic reviews: CRD42013004201.

Keywords: Lowever extremity; Sporting injuries; Stress fracture.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Fractures, Stress / surgery*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Metatarsal Bones / injuries*
  • Metatarsal Bones / surgery
  • Selection Bias
  • Tarsal Bones / injuries
  • Tarsal Bones / surgery
  • Tibial Fractures / surgery*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Young Adult