Most cases of heel pain are caused when a band of tissue in the foot, known as the plantar fascia, becomes damaged and thickens. Plantar fasciitis is the medical term for the thickening of the plantar fascia. The plantar fascia is a tough and flexible band of tissue that runs under the sole of the foot. It connects the heel bone with the bones of the foot, and acts as a kind of shock absorber to the foot. Sudden damage, or damage that occurs over many months or years, can cause tiny tears (microtears) to develop inside the tissue of the plantar fascia. This can cause the plantar fascia to thicken, resulting in heel pain. The surrounding tissue and the heel bone can also sometimes become inflamed.
A sharp stabbing pain, like a nail going into the bottom of the heel when first stepping on the foot after getting out of bed or after sitting for period of time, is the most common description for plantar fasciitis or heel spur syndrome. Typically the pain eases off as the day goes on but it may not go away completely. A thick ligament that attaches to the bottom of the heel and runs the length of the foot to the toes can become inflamed and swollen at the attachment site. This tends to be an overuse type of injury where poor foot structure is involved; also, wearing of shoe gear that lacks adequate support (ie: worn out shoes, boots and flip-flops) and prolonged standing or walking are often implicated. A throbbing pain that gets worse as the day goes on and can be worse at night when laying in bed is most often associated with an irritated or entrapped nerve on the inside of the ankle or heel. This is similar to carpel tunnel syndrome in the wrist and hand. Approximately 7 / 10 patients with heel pain have a component of nerve entrapment as the cause of their heel pain. This is also one of the most common causes of chronic heel pain because it is often missed as a diagnosis. When nerve entrapment is considered to be a cause, painless neurosensory testing is performed with the Pressure Specified Sensory Device? (PSSD) at The Foot & Ankle Center, PC to determine the extent of compression. A less common cause of heel pain but a stress fracture is often considered in athletes, such as long distance runners, who have heel pain. Posterior Heel Pain (Retrocalcaneal) This is pain in the back of the heel that flares up when first starting an activity. It is often associated with a large bump that can be irritated by shoes. The Achilles tendon attaches to the back of the heel and, like on the bottom, this attachment site can often become inflamed; a spur may or may not be present. Another painful area is a sac of fluid (bursa) that sits between the tendon and bone to act as a cushion for the tendon. This bursa can become inflamed often leading to significant pain called retrocalcaneal bursitis.
Pain typically comes on gradually, with no injury to the affected area. It is frequently triggered by wearing a flat shoe, such as flip-flop sandals. Flat footwear may stretch the plantar fascia to such an extent that the area becomes swollen (inflamed). In most cases, the pain is under the foot, toward the front of the heel. Post-static dyskinesia (pain after rest) symptoms tend to be worse just after getting out of bed in the morning, and after a period of rest during the day. After a bit of activity symptoms often improve a bit. However, they may worsen again toward the end of the day.
A biomechanical exam by your podiatrist will help reveal these abnormalities and in turn resolve the cause of plantar fasciitis. By addressing this cause, the patient can be offered a podiatric long-term solution to his problem.
Non Surgical Treatment
If you have experienced painful heels try wearing your shoes around your house in the evening. Don't wear slippers or socks or go barefoot. You may also try gentle calf stretches for 20 to 30 seconds on each leg. This is best done barefoot, leaning forward towards a wall with one foot forward and one foot back. If the pain persists longer than one month, you should visit a podiatrist for evaluation and treatment. Your feet should not hurt, and professional podiatric care may be required to help relieve your discomfort. If you have not exercised in a long time, consult your podiatric physician before starting a new exercise program. Begin an exercise program slowly. Don't go too far or too fast. Purchase and maintain good shoes and replace them regularly. Stretch each foot and achilles tendon before and after exercise. Avoid uneven walking surfaces or stepping on rocks as much as possible. Avoid going barefoot on hard surfaces. Vary the incline on a treadmill during exercise. Nobody walks uphill all the time. If it hurts, stop. Don't try to "work through the pain." Your podiatric physician/surgeon has been trained specifically and extensively in the diagnosis and treatment of all manner of foot conditions. This training encompasses all of the intricately related systems and structures of the foot and lower leg including neurological, circulatory, skin, and the musculoskeletal system, which includes bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves.
Surgery to correct heel pain is generally only recommended if orthotic treatment has failed. There are some exceptions to this course of treatment and it is up to you and your doctor to determine the most appropriate course of treatment. Following surgical treatment to correct heel pain the patient will generally have to continue the use of orthotics. The surgery does not correct the cause of the heel pain. The surgery will eliminate the pain but the process that caused the pain will continue without the use of orthotics. If orthotics have been prescribed prior to surgery they generally do not have to be remade.
It is not always possible to prevent heel pain, but there are measures you can take to help avoid further episodes. Being overweight can place excess pressure and strain on your feet, particularly on your heels. This increases the risk of damaging your feet and heels. If you are overweight, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight by combining regular exercise with a healthy, balanced diet can be beneficial for your feet. You can calculate your body mass index (BMI) to find out whether you are a healthy weight for your height and build. To work out your BMI, divide your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared. A BMI of less than 18.5 means that you are underweight, 18.5-24.9 means that your weight is healthy, 25-29 means that you are overweight, 30-40 means that you are obese, over 40 means that you are morbidly obese. You can also use the BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your BMI.