Heel pain is one of the most common conditions treated by podiatrists. It is often a message that something is in need of medical attention. Pain that occurs right after an injury or early in an illness may play a protective role, often warning us about the damage we have suffered. Heel pain is a problem which affects people of all ages and vocations, whether they are active or not and it comes in many different forms. Heel pain can also occur in children usually between the ages of 8 and 13, as they become increasingly active in sporting activities and during the growing phase.
There are many causes of heel pain. However, plantar fasciitis, also known as heel spur syndrome, is the most common, by far. The pain is usually localized to the bottom of the heel towards the inside of the foot. The arch may also be painful. With this condition, pain is typically most severe with the first few steps after a period of rest. The pain my then subside and then return after extended periods of standing. There is usually no specific traumatic event that is responsible for the condition. It is usually the result of overuse, e.g. too much standing, walking or running. There are several common contributory factors such as weight gain, foot type, shoes. Flat shoes or going barefoot are the worst. Athletic shoes are usually the best. The plantar fascia is a fibrous band or ligament that connects the ball of the foot with the heel and helps to support the arch. When this band gets stretched too much or overused, inflammation results, often at the location where it attaches to the heel bone. A heel spur may develop as a result of chronic pulling by the plantar fascia. However, it should be noted that the pain is not caused by the spur. In fact, in some of the most severe cases, there is no spur at all. In other instances, an X-ray may be taken for an unrelated condition and an extremely large but non-painful spur may be seen. Other causes of heel pain include gout, stress fracture, bone tumors, nerve entrapment and thinning of the fat pad beneath the heel. Pain at the back of the heel is usually not plantar fasciitis. (Pain at the back of the heel is often due to an inflammation of the Achilles tendon, enlargement of the heel bone or bursitis.)
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.
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
Treatment of heel pain depends on its cause. Plantar fasciitis. Most doctors recommend a six- to eight-week program of conservative treatment, including temporary rest from sports that trigger the foot problem, stretching exercises, ice massage to the sole of the foot, footwear modifications, taping of the sole of the injured foot, and acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and others) for pain. If this conservative treatment doesn't help, your doctor may recommend that you wear a night splint or a short leg cast, or he or she may inject corticosteroid medication into the painful area. Surgery is rarely necessary and is not always successful. Heel spur. Conservative treatment includes the use of shoe supports (either a heel raise or a donut-shaped heel cushion) and a limited number of local corticosteroid injections (usually up to three per year). As in plantar fasciitis, surgery is a last resort. Calcaneal apophysitis. This condition usually goes away on its own. In the meantime, conservative treatment includes rest and the use of heel pads and heel cushions. Bursitis. Treatment is similar to the treatment of heel spurs. Changing the type of footwear may be essential.
If treatment hasn't worked and you still have painful symptoms after a year, your GP may refer you to either an orthopaedic surgeon, a surgeon who specialises in surgery that involves bones, muscles and joints or a podiatric surgeon, a podiatrist who specialises in foot surgery. Surgery is sometimes recommended for professional athletes and other sportspeople whose heel pain is adversely affecting their career. Plantar release surgery is the most widely used type of surgery for heel pain. The surgeon will cut the fascia to release it from your heel bone and reduce the tension in your plantar fascia. This should reduce any inflammation and relieve your painful symptoms. Surgery can be performed either as open surgery, where the section of the plantar fascia is released by making a cut into your heel or endoscopic or minimal incision surgery - where a smaller incision is made and special instruments are inserted through the incision to gain access to the plantar fascia. Endoscopic or minimal incision surgery has a quicker recovery time, so you will be able to walk normally much sooner (almost immediately), compared with two to three weeks for open surgery. A disadvantage of endoscopic surgery is that it requires both a specially trained surgical team and specialised equipment, so you may have to wait longer for treatment than if you were to choose open surgery. Endoscopic surgery also carries a higher risk of damaging nearby nerves, which could result in symptoms such as numbness, tingling or some loss of movement in your foot. As with all surgery, plantar release carries the risk of causing complications such as infection, nerve damage and a worsening of your symptoms after surgery (although this is rare). You should discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both techniques with your surgical team.
You can reduce the risk of heel pain in many ways, including. Wear shoes that fit you properly with a firm fastening, such as laces. Choose shoes with shock-absorbent soles and supportive heels. Repair or throw out any shoes that have worn heels. Always warm up and cool down when exercising or playing sport, include plenty of slow, sustained stretches. If necessary, your podiatrist will show you how to tape or strap your feet to help support the muscles and ligaments. Shoe inserts (orthoses) professionally fitted by your podiatrist can help support your feet in the long term.