Every time you take a step, one of your heels has to support the whole weight of your body. As you move, the load is equal to 20 times your own body weight. The load is softened by a pillow of fat under the heel and a large sinew or ligament (the fibrous tissue that joins muscle and bone together) under the sole of the foot. This sinew is called the plantar fascia and it pulls the heel bone forward (in opposition to the Achilles tendon, which pulls it backwards). If an athlete does not warm up properly or a person with a sedentary job exercises heavily during the weekends, they might overload the muscles of the calf or strain the Achilles tendon, which joins these muscles to the heel bone. When overloaded the tendon becomes tight and painfully inflamed, which places extra strain on the plantar fascia and muscles in the soles of the foot. The strained plantar fascia becomes inflamed and may even develop tiny cracks. This is known as plantar fasciitis. Every time you sit down, sleep or otherwise rest your legs, the muscles of the sole of the foot will contract in an attempt to protect the damaged sinew. The pain in the heel will then no longer be felt. But when you get up again and put weight on the foot, the foot and ankle may feel stiff (because of the inflammation) and the pain will return either at the back of the heel or on the soles of the feet. When you start to move, the plantar fascia may crack even more causing a vicious cycle of damage and Heel Pain. Inflammation at the point where the Achilles tendon (at the back of the heel) or the plantar fascia (under the heel) join the heel bone (a bone known as the Calcaneum) stimulates cells that form bone to deposit bone in this area, eventually leading to the build up of a bony prominence on the heel bone called a calcaneal spur. But it’s not the spur itself that causes the pain. The spur is a sign of chronic inflammation in the connective tissues, which is the result of a prolonged overload. It should also be pointed out that heel spurs can occur on their own, without plantar fasciitis or pain, or may be linked to some types of arthritis (inflammation of the joints). And plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis don’t necessarily lead to spur formation.
There are many possible causes of heel pain. Most commonly it is a chronic, long-term pain that results of some type of faulty biomechanics (abnormalities in the way you walk) that place too much stress on the heel bone and the soft tissues that attach to it. Chronic pain is a common result of standing or walking too many hours in the course of a day, working on concrete, being overweight, wearing poorly-constructed shoes, having an overly-pronated foot type (where the arch collapses excessively) or the opposite–having too high an arch. Women seem to get this slightly more often than men, and while any age can be affected, it usually occurs between 30 and 50 years of age. The other type of heel pain is the sort you get from an acute injury–a bruise to the bone or soft tissue strain resulting from a strenuous activity, like walking, running, or jumping, or from some degree of trauma. While there are dozens of possible causes to heel pain, I will review some of the more common causes. Arch Pain/Plantar Fasciitis. One of those often-painful soft tissue that attaches to heel spurs at the bottom of the foot is called “plantar fascia”. Fascia, located throughout the body, is a fibrous connective tissue similar to a ligament. You can see fascia as some of that white, connective tissue attaching to bones, when you pull apart meat. The “plantar” fascia in our bodies is that fascia which is seen on the bottom (or plantar portion) of the foot, extending from the heel bone to the ball of the foot. Compared to other fascia around the body, plantar fascia is very thick and very strong. It has to be strong because of the tremendous amount of force it must endure when you walk, run or jump. But while the plantar fascia is a strong structure, it can still get injured, most commonly when it is stretched beyond its normal length over long periods of time. Plantar Fascitis. When plantar fascia is injured, the condition is called “plantar fasciitis”, pronounced “plan-tar fash-I-tis”. (Adding “-itis” to the end of a word means that structure is inflamed.) It is sometimes known more simply as ‘fasciitis’. Plantar fasciitis is the most common type of arch pain. Symptoms of plantar fasciitis may occur anywhere along the arch, but it is most common near its attachment to the heel bone.
Depending on the specific form of heel pain, symptoms may vary. Pain stemming from plantar fasciitis or heel spurs is particularly acute following periods of rest, whether it is after getting out of bed in the morning, or getting up after a long period of sitting. In many cases, pain subsides during activity as injured tissue adjusts to damage, but can return again with prolonged activity or when excessive pressure is applied to the affected area. Extended periods of activity and/or strain of the foot can increase pain and inflammation in the foot. In addition to pain, heel conditions can also generate swelling, bruising, and redness. The foot may also be hot to the touch, experience tingling, or numbness depending on the condition.
A podiatrist (doctor who specializes in the evaluation and treatment of foot diseases) will carry out a physical examination, and ask pertinent questions about the pain. The doctor will also ask the patient how much walking and standing the patient does, what type of footwear is worn, and details of the his/her medical history. Often this is enough to make a diagnosis. Sometimes further diagnostic tests are needed, such as blood tests and imaging scans.
Non Surgical Treatment
Treatment options for plantar fasciitis include custom prescription foot orthoses (orthotics), weight loss when indicated, steroid injections and physical therapy to decrease the inflammation, night-splints and/or cast boots to splint and limit the stress on the plantar fascia. Orthotripsy (high frequency ultra-sonic shock waves) is also a new treatment option that has been shown to decrease the pain significantly in 50 to 85 percent of patients in published studies. Surgery, which can be done endoscopically, is usually not needed for over 90 percent of the cases of plantar fasciitis. (However, when surgery is needed, it is about 85 percent successful.) Patients who are overweight do not seem to benefit as much from surgery. Generally, plantar fasciitis is a condition people learn to control. There are a few conditions similar to plantar fascia in which patients should be aware. The most common is a rupture of the plantar fascia: the patient continues to exercise despite the symptoms and experiences a sudden sharp pain on the bottom of the heel and cannot stand on his or her toes, resulting in bruising in the arch. Ruptures are treated very successfully by immobilization in a cast boot for two to six weeks, a period of active rest and physical therapy. Another problem with prolonged and neglected plantar fasciitis is development of a stress fracture from the constant traction of this ligament on the heel bone. This appears more common in osteoporotic women, and is also treated with cast boot immobilization. The nerves that run along the heel occasionally become inflamed by the subsequent thickening and inflammation of the adjacent plantar fascia. These symptoms often feel like numbness and burning and usually resolve with physical therapy and injections. Patients should also be aware that heel numbness can be the first sign of a back problem.
Although most patients with plantar fasciitis respond to non-surgical treatment, a small percentage of patients may require surgery. If, after several months of non-surgical treatment, you continue to have heel pain, surgery will be considered. Your foot and ankle surgeon will discuss the surgical options with you and determine which approach would be most beneficial for you. No matter what kind of treatment you undergo for plantar fasciitis, the underlying causes that led to this condition may remain. Therefore, you will need to continue with preventive measures. Wearing supportive shoes, stretching, and using custom orthotic devices are the mainstay of long-term treatment for plantar fasciitis.
Flexibility is key when it comes to staving off the pain associated with these heel conditions. The body is designed to work in harmony, so stretching shouldn?t be concentrated solely on the foot itself. The sympathetic tendons and muscles that move the foot should also be stretched and gently exercised to ensure the best results for your heel stretches. Take the time to stretch thighs, calves and ankles to encourage healthy blood flow and relaxed muscle tension that will keep pain to a minimum. If ice is recommended by a doctor, try freezing a half bottle of water and slowly rolling your bare foot back and forth over it for as long as is comfortable. The use of elastic or canvas straps to facilitate stretching of an extended leg can also be helpful when stretching without an assistant handy. Once cleared by a doctor, a daily regimen of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like Naproxen Sodium will keep pain at bay and increase flexibility in those afflicted by heel pain. While this medication is not intended to act as a substitute for medical assessments, orthopedics or stretching, it can nonetheless be helpful in keeping discomfort muted enough to enjoy daily life. When taking any medication for your heel pain, be sure to follow directions regarding food and drink, and ask your pharmacist about possible interactions with existing medications or frequent activities.