Understand Heel Pain

Overview

Feet Pain

Heel Pain is most often caused by plantar fasciitis, a condition that is sometimes also called heel spur syndrome when a spur is present. Heel pain may also be due to other causes, such as a stress fracture, tendonitis, arthritis, nerve irritation, or, rarely, a cyst. Because there are several potential causes, it is important to have heel pain properly diagnosed. A foot and ankle surgeon is able to distinguish between all the possibilities and determine the underlying source of your heel pain.What Is Plantar Fasciitis? Plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of the band of tissue (the plantar fascia) that extends from the heel to the toes. In this condition, the fascia first becomes irritated and then inflamed, resulting in heel pain.

Causes

To understand the cause of the pain one must understand the anatomy of the foot and some basic mechanics in the function of the foot. A thick ligament, called the plantar fascia, is attached into the bottom of the heel and fans out into the ball of the foot, attaching into the base of the toes. The plantar fascia is made of dense, fibrous connective tissue that will stretch very little. It acts something like a shock absorber. As the foot impacts the ground with each step, it flattens out lengthening the foot. This action pulls on the plantar fascia, which stretches slightly. When the heel comes off the ground the tension on the ligament is released. Anything that causes the foot to flatten excessively will cause the plantar fascia to stretch greater that it is accustom to doing. One consequence of this is the development of small tears where the ligament attaches into the heel bone. When these small tears occur, a very small amount of bleeding occurs and the tension of the plantar fascia on the heel bone produces a spur on the bottom of the heel to form. Pain experienced in the bottom of the heel is not produced by the presence of the spur. The pain is due to excessive tension of the plantar fascia as it tears from its attachment into the heel bone. Heel spur formation is secondary to the excessive pull of the plantar fascia where it attaches to the heel bone. Many people have heel spurs at the attachment of the plantar fascia with out having any symptoms or pain. There are some less common causes of heel pain but they are relatively uncommon. There are several factors that cause the foot to flatten and excessively stretching the plantar fascia. The primary factor is the structure of a joint complex below the ankle joint, called the subtalar joint. The movement of this joint complex causes the arch of the foot to flatten and to heighten. Flattening of the arch of the foot is termed pronation and heightening of the arch is called supination. If there is excessive pronation of the foot during walking and standing, the plantar fascia is strained. Over time, this will cause a weakening of the ligament where it attaches into the heel bone, causing pain. When a person is at rest and off of their feet, the plantar fascia attempts to mend itself. Then, with the first few steps the fascia re-tears causing pain. Generally, after the first few steps the pain diminishes. This is why the heel pain tends to be worse the first few steps in the morning or after rest. Another factor that contributes to the flattening of the arch of the foot is tightness of the calf muscles. The calf muscle attaches into the foot by the achilles tendon into the back of the heel. When the calf muscle is tight it limits the movement of the ankle joint. When ankle joint motion is limited by the tightness of the calf muscle it forces the subtalar joint to pronate excessively. Excessive subtalar joint pronation can cause several different problems to occur in the foot. In this instance, it results in excessive tension of the plantar fascia. Tightness of the calf muscles can be a result of several different factors. Exercise, such as walking or jogging will cause the calf muscle to tighten. Inactivity or prolonged rest will also cause the calf muscle to tighten. Women who wear high heels and men who wear western style cowboy boots will, over time, develop tightness in the calf muscles.

Symptoms

Symptoms include a dull ache which is felt most of the time with episodes of a sharp pain in the centre of the heel or on the inside margin of the heel. Often the pain is worse on first rising in the morning and after rest and is aggravated by prolonged weight bearing & thin soled shoes.

Diagnosis

To arrive at a diagnosis, the foot and ankle surgeon will obtain your medical history and examine your foot. Throughout this process the surgeon rules out all the possible causes for your heel pain other than plantar fasciitis. In addition, diagnostic imaging studies such as x-rays or other imaging modalities may be used to distinguish the different types of heel pain. Sometimes heel spurs are found in patients with plantar fasciitis, but these are rarely a source of pain. When they are present, the condition may be diagnosed as plantar fasciitis/heel spur syndrome.

Non Surgical Treatment

If pain and other symptoms of inflammation-redness, swelling, heat-persist, you should limit normal daily activities and contact our office, or another doctor of podiatric medicine. Your foot would be examined, and an X-ray may be taken to rule out problems of the bone. Early treatment might involve oral or injectable anti-inflammatory medication, taping, padding, massage, stretching, exercise, shoe recommendations, physiotherapy, over-the-counter shoe inserts or, if the condition is chronic and there is a biomechanical basis to the complaint, orthoses (or orthotic devices) may be used to permanently take strain off the fascia. Only rarely is surgery required for heel pain. If necessary, however, it may involve the release of the plantar fascia, removal of a spur, removal of a bursa, or removal of a neuroma or other soft-tissue growth.

Surgical Treatment

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.

Prevention

Painful Heel

Preventing heel pain is crucial to avoid pain that can easily interrupt a busy or active lifestyle. Athletes can prevent damage by stretching the foot and calf both before and after an exercise routine. The plantar fascia ligament can be stretched by using a tennis ball or water bottle and rolling it across the bottom of the foot. With regular stretching, the stretching and flexibility of tissue through the foot can be significantly improved, helping to prevent damage and injury. Athletes should also ease into new or more difficult routines, allowing the plantar fascia and other tissue to become accustomed to the added stress and difficulty. Running up hills is also common among athletes in their routines. However, this activity should be reduced since it places an increased amount of stress on the plantar fascia and increases the risk of plantar fasciitis. Maintaining a healthy weight is also an essential heel pain prevention technique. Obesity brings additional weight and stress on the heel of the foot, causing damage and pain in the heel as well as in other areas of the foot.

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