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.
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.
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.
Depending on the condition, the cause of heel pain is diagnosed using a number of tests, including medical history, physical examination, including examination of joints and muscles of the foot and leg, X-rays.
Non Surgical Treatment
Morning Wall Stretch. Stand barefoot in front of wall, as shown. Press into wall with both hands and lean forward, feeling stretch along back of left leg and heel. Hold for 30 seconds; switch sides and repeat. Freeze and Roll. Freeze a small water bottle. Cover it with a towel and place arch of your foot on top of it. Slowly roll bottle beneath arch of foot for about 5 minutes at a time. Switch sides and repeat. Rub It Out. Use both thumbs to apply deep pressure along arch of the feet, heel, and calf muscles, moving slowly and evenly. Continue for 1 minute. Switch sides and repeat. If you foot pain isn’t improving or worsens after 2 weeks, a podiatrist or othopedist can prescribe additional therapies to alleviate discomfort and prevent recurrence.
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.
Being overweight can place excess pressure and strain on your feet, particularly on your heels. Losing weight, and maintaining a healthy weight by combining regular exercise with a healthy, balanced diet, can be beneficial for your feet. Wearing appropriate footwear is also important. Ideally, you should wear shoes with a low to moderate heel that supports and cushions your arches and heels. Avoid wearing shoes with no heels.