More than 20 percent of patients visit foot specialists because of heel pain, and approximately one-third of all patients I see come because of this problem. Over 50 percent of Americans will experience heel pain during their lifetime. The most common form of heel pain is known as plantar fasciitis or "heel spur syndrome." The plantar fascia is a thick ligament on the bottom of your foot spanning from your heel to the base of your toes. It supports the arch and several muscles under the bones that support the foot. Overtime, most people will develop some degree of calcification within these muscles on the bottom of their heel called a "spur."
Plantar fasciitis is a condition of irritation to the plantar fascia, the thick ligament on the bottom of your foot. It classically causes pain and stiffness on the bottom of your heel and feels worse in the morning with the first steps out of bed and also in the beginning of an activity after a period of rest. For instance, after driving a car, people feel pain when they first get out, or runners will feel discomfort for the first few minutes of their run.
This occurs because the plantar fascia is not well supplied by blood, which makes this condition slow in healing, and a certain amount of activity is needed to get the area to warm up. Plantar fasciitis can occur for various reasons: use of improper, non-supportive shoes; over-training in sports; lack of flexibility; weight gain; prolonged standing; and, interestingly, prolonged bed rest.
Initially, treatment will consist of adding support to the foot, including better shoes and an over-the-counter arch supports and/or insoles; resting from the sport or activity that aggravates the problem; stretching the calf and arch muscles; taking anti-inflammatory; and using ice and massage to reduce inflammation. You can ice and message your muscles simultaneously by freezing a water bottle filled with water and using it to massage your foot by rolling it underneath your foot for five to 10 minutes at least two times per day (see below). It is not unusual for symptoms of plantar fasciitis to persist for six to 12 months despite treatment.
Other treatment options for plantar fasciitis include custom prescription foot orthoses (orthotics), weight loss when indicated, steroid injections and /or 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.
The Achilles tendon (the cord-like structure attaching your calf muscle to your heel) is another region where heel pain is common. The Achilles tendon can be injured acutely, known as a rupture, which when completely severed, usually is repaired successfully with surgery. (Partial ruptures are not usually repaired surgically, but if they are not protected with a period of immobilization, they can be limiting and chronic.) During a rupture, patients typically experience a "pop" in the back of their heel and cannot support their weight on one limb while rising up on their toes. Basketball and tennis are the most common culprits, and recovery takes six to 12 months.
The Achilles tendon can also become chronically inflamed, known as tendinosis. This condition is sometimes caused by microscopic tears within the tendon or previous partial tears that were not rested and rehabilitated properly. The symptoms are similar to plantar fasciitis in that stiffness and pain is worse in the morning and when beginning activity. Lumps or swelling, along with a burning sensation, are signs that activities should be stopped to avoid further aggravating the condition and possibly creating a rupture. Certain medications, such as oral steroids and a class of antibiotics known as quinolones, increase an individual's vulnerability of Achilles tendinosis and rupture.
Initial treatment consists of rest, use of heel cushions to elevate the heel (and take tension off the Achilles), stretching (see above) and applying ice to the area. You can ice and stretch the area simultaneously by filling a bucket with ice and cold water and placing the foot flexed with the toes upward so that the Achilles tendon region is bathed in the cold water for 10 to 15 minutes twice a day (see above). The Achilles region can also become inflamed around the tendon, called paratendinosis. This condition can be treated with the ice bucket stretching, rest and physical therapy.
Another area that is commonly subjected to problems is the attachment of the Achilles near or on the heel bone. The heel (calcaneus) itself can have an irregular shape to it, causing irritation to the Achilles as it twists over the region and inflames the bursa, a naturally occurring cushion. Shoes can often aggravate this condition. Sometimes over-stretching, such as the Achilles stretch with the knee bent, can irritate the tendon and cause a bursitis. Prescription foot orthoses can help reduce the torque of the Achilles tendon in these types of cases.
Often, the Achilles tendon calcifies near its attachment due to constant torque and tension. Repetitive stress can cause this calcific spur to crack, creating a chronic inflammatory situation that can require surgery. All of these types of chronic Achilles tendinosis that require surgery are successfully treated in over 90 percent of the cases. As with most foot surgery, complete recovery can take up to a year. Though heel pain is common and can be chronic, it does not have to be your weakness (as was the case with the warrior Achilles from Greek mythology).