The heel bone is the largest of the 26 bones in the human foot. But while it is a large, strong bone, it is often injured, and this pain can be quite disabling at times. Heel pain can occur in the front, back, sides or bottom of the heel. That the heel is commonly injured is not surprising, perhaps, given the amazing amount of stress it must endure during a day. Indeed, it is one of the most common injuries of the foot; we see some variation of heel pain in our offices an average of 5 or 6 times per day.
There are two different categories of heel pain. The first is caused by over-use repetitive stress which refers to a soreness resulting from too much impact on a specific area of the foot. This condition, often referred to as "heel pain syndrome," can be caused by shoes with heels that are too low, a thinned out fat pad in the heel area, or from a sudden increase in activity. Plantar fasciitis, a very common diagnosis of heel pain, is usually caused from a biomechancial problem, such as over-pronation (flat feet). The plantar fascia is a broad band of fibrous tissue that runs along the bottom surface of the foot, from the heel through the midfoot and into the forefoot. Over-pronation can cause the plantar fascia to be excessively stretched and inflamed, resulting in pain in the heel and arch areas of the foot. Often the pain will be most intense first thing in the morning or after a prolonged period of rest. The pain will gradually subside as the day progresses.
Initially, this pain may only be present when first standing up after sleeping or sitting. As you walk around, the muscle and tendon loosen and the pain goes away. As this problem progresses, the pain can be present with all standing and walking. You may notice a knot or bump on the back of the heel. Swelling may develop. In some cases, pressure from the back of the shoe causes pain.
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 plantar fasciitis is usually performed in stages according to the duration and degree of pain. Treatment may take many months if the condition has been longstanding. Treatment usually begins with anti-inflammatory medication, shoe modification, temporary limitation of activities, weight loss and heel cord stretching. Also, night splints are often helpful to stretch the plantar fascia. An arch support (orthotic) may also be helpful, especially if you have a flat foot. If the problem continues, the tender area occasionally may be injected with cortisone and a local anesthetic. For a difficult, chronic problem, a period of casting may be used to improve this condition. Surgical treatment is rarely needed. If performed, it aims to partially release the plantar fascia and stimulate healing of the chronic inflammation. Removal of a heel spur, if it is large, may also be done at the time of surgery.
Only a relatively few cases of heel pain require surgery. If required, surgery is usually for the removal of a spur, but also may involve release of the plantar fascia, removal of a bursa, or a removal of a neuroma or other soft-tissue growth.
Before you get out of bed in the morning, and then periodically throughout the day, do the following exercises to increase flexibility and ease pain. Slowly flex your foot and toes to stretch the tissue on the bottom of your sore foot. Hold the stretch for 10 counts. Relax and repeat. Do gentle ankle rolls to keep the tissues around the ankle and on the back of the heel flexible. Sit on the edge of your bed and roll your foot back and forth over a tennis ball.