What should I know about heel pain?
Heel pain is probably the most common complaint of patients seen for foot and ankle disorders. The pain commonly occurs at the undersurface of the foot called the plantar surface or at the back surface of the heel. While painful heel conditions may not be disabling or cause severe pain, they are typically annoying enough to limit any walking, standing or running activities. Unfortunately, treatments to rid painful heel conditions can take much time and effort.
Several conditions can cause foot and heel pain. These are described below, as well as symptoms and treatment options.
Plantar fasciitis is inflammation of a thick band of ligament that extends from the bottom of the heel to the toes (primarily the big toe). It can be very painful. If treated early, it can be much easier to heal. Once plantar fasciitis has become an ongoing problem, it may be more difficult to heal. Shoes without adequate support, work demands, obesity, running, and abnormal foot mechanics (the way a person’s feet and ankle move to support the weight of our body) may all play a role in the cause of plantar fasciitis.
Pain typically occurs at the underside of the heel and may extend into the arch of the foot. The pain may be sharp at the heel, but typically feels as a generalized soreness or ache in the heel and arch area. Because the inflamed plantar fascia tightens at night, pain is usually the worst at first rising in the morning. This pain may lessen after walking or stretching for a short time as it loosens up. Pain from plantar fasciitis is often made worse by standing, walking, or running. Typically, the presence or absence of a “heel spur“ is not significant. Between 30 and 40 percent of the general population has a "heel spur" (on X-ray) and yet, there is no pain.
Your physician and physical therapist will determine the best treatment for you. Generally, for mild, non-chronic cases, home therapies may be effective. The goals of the following treatment approaches are to decrease inflammation, increase flexibility, reduce excessive stress on the plantar fascia, and promote healing of the fascia.
- Tape the arch of your foot.
- Pad your heel.
- Use an in-shoe orthotic device(a customized, cushioning pad that is put inside your shoe).
- Get a series of three pain-killing cortisone shots into the heel area.
- Take anti-inflammatory medicine (by mouth, for 2 to3 weeks.) Examples of anti-inflammatory medicines are aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®), and naprosyn.
- Change your shoe gear. Buy shoes that provide adequate support for your feet and especially those made for specific activities.
- Perform physical therapy to include stretching (Achilles tendon and calf muscles), strengthening, and use of anti-inflammatory methods, including ice, ultrasound, or iontophoresis. Iontophoresis is a method that uses an electric current to deliver drugs.
- Use a night splint (a type of brace that holds the foot and ankle in the proper position).
- Wear a walking boot for 3 to 6 weeks (a type of boot that supports the foot and ankle after injury).
- Surgery (rarely necessary).
The Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the body. The Achilles connects the calf muscles to the heel bone. The tendon allows us to walk, run and jump. Achilles tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendon and is almost always caused by overuse.
Any activity that requires a pushing off, such as basketball or running, can result in tendinitis. If Achilles Tendonitis is left untreated, scar tissue will replace the tendon, and the condition will become very difficult to effectively treat.
Symptoms include pain and stiffness in the back of the ankle close to the heel, especially when moving your foot. There could also be mild swelling along the tendon. Chronic tendonitis (lasting more than 6 weeks) can result in the breakdown and rupture of the tendon.
Your doctor and physical therapist will determine the best treatments for you. The following are common treatment approaches for Achilles tendonitis:
- Rest: Remain inactive until symptoms have lessened, then gradually return to activity.
- Orthotics: Wedges, heel lifts and stable shoes will help correct biomechanical imbalances, which are considered a main contributor to Achilles Tendonitis.
- Medications: NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) increase healing strength.
- Stretching: Once the pain has lessened, stretching is the most important treatment of Achilles Tendonitis. Stretch as far as possible until tightness is felt. If stretching becomes painful, then you are pushing too far. Wall leans (remain flat footed with knee fully extended, then lean toward the wall, slowly stretching the calf muscles and Achilles tendon) are a good way to stretch the Achilles tendon.
- Electrotherapy: Applies electrical energy directly to the injury site to reduce pain, improve muscle strength, improve range of joint movement and decrease healing time.
- Phonopheresis: Applies ultrasound directly to the injury site to reduce pain and swelling and promote healing.
- Rehabilitation exercises: Atrophy (decay) will set in after an Achilles injury. Elastic bands provide resistance during plantar flexion exercises. As strength improves, toe-ups with slow lowering are recommended to further strengthen the calf muscles.
- Shock wave therapy: Shock wave therapy (strong sound waves) may be tried to reduce pain and promote healing of this condition. This type of energy wave treatment is often tried before surgery.
- Surgery: If symptoms have not lessened after 6 months of non-surgical treatments, surgery to repair the damaged tendon becomes an option.
Bursitis means an inflammation of a bursa, a sac that lines many joints and allows tendons and muscles to move easily when the joint is moving. In the heel, bursitis may cause bruise-like pain mostly on the bottom of the heel, but also at the back of the heel. This pain is most often felt at the end of the day, especially for people who spend much of their time on their feet.
Besides pain, the common symptom of calcaneal bursitis is a baggy swelling on the bottom of the heel. There is no arch pain with this condition.
- Heel cups/cushions
- Cortisone shots
- Physical therapy
- Anti-inflammatory medications
Calcaneal apophysitis (Sever's disease)
In this condition, the growth plate in the back of the heel becomes irritated as a result of a new shoe or an increase in athletic activity. This pain occurs in the back of the heel, not the underside of the heel. This condition is a frequent cause of heel pain in active, growing children between the ages of 9 and 12. Although almost any boy or girl can be affected, children who participate in sports that require a lot of jumping have the highest risk of developing this condition.
The most common treatment options for calcaneal apophysitis include:
- Heel lift
- Stretching of the calf muscles
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Orthotics (uncommon)