Do You Really Understand Heel Pain?

Overview

Pain Under The Heel

Heel pain is usually focused on the underside or the back of your heel. If your pain is on the underside of your heel, its likely cause is plantar fasciitis. Pain on the back of your heel, where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel bone, is Achilles tendinitis. Although heel pain is rarely a symptom of a serious condition, it can interfere with your normal activities, particularly exercise.

Causes

While heel pain has many causes, it is usually the result of faulty biomechanics (abnormalities in the way we walk). This can place too much stress on the heel bone and the soft tissues attached to it. The stress may also result from injury, or a bruise incurred while walking, running or jumping on hard surfaces; wearing poorly constructed footwear; or being significantly overweight. Systemic diseases such as arthritis and diabetes can also contribute to heel pain. A common cause of heel pain is the heel spur, a bony growth under the heel bone. There are no visible features on the heel, but a deep painful spot can be found in or around the middle of the sole of the heel (see diagram). Approximately 10 per cent of the population may have heel spurs without any pain. Heel spurs result from strain on the muscles of the foot. This may result from biomechanical imbalance, a condition occurring in many people. Both heel pain and heel spurs are frequently associated with an inflammation of the long band of tissue that connects the heel and the ball of the foot. The inflammation of this arch area is called plantar fasciitis. The inflammation may be aggravated by shoes that lack appropriate support, especially in the arch area, and by the chronic irritation that sometimes accompanies an athletic lifestyle.Excessive rolling in of the feet when walking. An inflamed bursa (bursitis), a small, irritated sack of fluid at the back of the heel. A neuroma (a nerve growth). Other soft-tissue growths. Heel bumps or ?pump bumps?, a bone enlargement at the back of the heel bone. Bruises or stress fractures to the heel bone.

Symptoms

See your doctor as soon as possible if you experience severe pain accompanied by swelling near your heel. There is numbness or tingling in the heel, as well as pain and fever. There is pain in your heel as well as fever. You are unable to walk normally. You cannot bend your foot downwards. You cannot stand with the backs of the feet raised (you cannot rise onto your toes). You should arrange to see a doctor if the heel pain has persisted for more than one week. There is still heel pain when you are not standing or walking.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history and symptoms, such as have you had this type of heel pain before? When did your pain begin? Do you have pain upon your first steps in the morning or after your first steps after rest? Is the pain dull and aching or sharp and stabbing? Is it worse after exercise? Is it worse when standing? Did you fall or twist your ankle recently? Are you a runner? If so, how far and how often do you run? Do you walk or stand for long periods of time? What kind of shoes do you wear? Do you have any other symptoms? Your doctor may order a foot x-ray. You may need to see a physical therapist to learn exercises to stretch and strengthen your foot. Your doctor may recommend a night splint to help stretch your foot. Surgery may be recommended in some cases.

Non Surgical Treatment

Initial treatment consists of rest, use of heel cushions to elevate the heel (and take tension off the Achilles), stretching 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. 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).

Surgical Treatment

Surgery to correct heel pain is generally only recommended if orthotic treatment has failed. There are some exceptions to this course of treatment and it is up to you and your doctor to determine the most appropriate course of treatment. Following surgical treatment to correct heel pain the patient will generally have to continue the use of orthotics. The surgery does not correct the cause of the heel pain. The surgery will eliminate the pain but the process that caused the pain will continue without the use of orthotics. If orthotics have been prescribed prior to surgery they generally do not have to be remade.

heel bursitis

Prevention

Foot Pain

The following steps will help prevent plantar fasciitis or help keep the condition from getting worse if you already have it. The primary treatment is rest. Cold packs application to the area for 20 minutes several times a day or after activities give some relief. Over-the-counter pain medications can help manage the pain, consult your healthcare professional. Shoes should be well cushioned, especially in the midsole area, and should have the appropriate arch support. Some will benefit from an orthotic shoe insert, such as a rubber heel pad for cushioning. Orthotics should be used in both shoes, even if only one foot hurts. Going barefoot or wearing slipper puts stress on your feet. Put on supportive shoes as soon as you get out of bed. Calf stretches and stretches using a towel (place the towel under the ball of your feet and pull gently the towel toward you and hold a few seconds) several times a day, especially when first getting up in the morning. Stretching the Achilles tendon at the back of the heel is especially important before sports, but it is helpful for nonathletes as well. Increasing your exercise levels gradually. Staying at a healthy weight. Surgery is very rarely required.
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