Chang says Chinese modalities for this type of injury usually involve external applications of herbal balms and liniment and ointments, and does not necessarily involve the ingestion of herbs.
The dearth of high quality studies on traditional Chinese techniques to deal with these injuries means that they are not yet part of the canon of conventional treatments. Still, some orthopedic experts say there may be benefits that will come to light through future research.
"As I know little about Chinese medicine, I can only comment on the possible benefits," says Dr. Andrew J. Elliott, assistant professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. "Those might be increasing blood flow to the area to speed healing, and possibly ingesting things that might help stimulate bone cells to heal."
And studies confirming some of the purported benefits of Chinese medicine for bone repair may be on the way. Dr. Regis J. O'Keefe, chair of the department of orthopaedics and rehabilitation at the University of Rochester Medical Center, along with his colleagues, presented evidence at a recent meeting of the Orthopaedic Research Society, showing how one Chinese remedy appears to have some benefit, at least in mice.
"There is a compound in traditional Chinese herbs that can stimulate fracture repair," O'Keefe says. "It alters a signaling pathway well known to regulate bone formation."
O'Keefe and his colleagues are investigating the compound, which is derived from shellfish, primarily to determine whether it can help stimulate bone formation in osteoporosis patients. But their findings may one day provide new avenues for fracture repair, as well.
But for weekend warriors and other athletes who do not have the resources to catch the next flight to China, the best remedy for stress fractures may still be the tried and true options of rest and moderate pain management.
"[Stress fracture sufferers] should seek professional attention as soon as the problem arises and realize that certain medical conditions will require them to stop training or participating to allow their body to heal — even if they don't want to," Elliott says. "They should also take an active role to educate themselves so they can weigh all their options and participate in their care."
And for the time being, Neviaser says, those who ascribe to alternative therapies would be best to keep their expectations in check.
"The message is that, while trying alternative treatment modalities, such as this, may not be harmful, one needs to know that they are unlikely to heal fractures and can delay the return to athletic activity because of the persistence of the fracture, and potentially convert a stress fracture into a common variety displaced fracture," he says.