Heel pain is a very common foot problem. The sufferer usually feels pain either under the heel (planter fasciitis) or just behind it (Achilles tendinitis), where the Achilles tendon connects to the heel bone. Even though heel pain can be severe and sometimes disabling, it is rarely a health threat. Heel pain is typically mild and usually disappears on its own; however, in some cases the pain may persist and become chronic (long-term).
The most common cause of heel pain is a pull on the heel bone exerted by the muscles and ligaments (plantar fascia shown in illustration above) that support the arch of the foot. This is an overuse condition similar to bursitis of the shoulder or tennis elbow. Plantar fasciitis is typically very painful in the morning during the first few steps, after sitting and again at the end of the day.
The symptoms of plantar fasciitis are pain on the bottom of the heel, pain in the arch of the foot, pain that is usually worse upon arising, pain that increases over a period of months. People with plantar fasciitis often describe the pain as worse when they get up in the morning or after they?ve been sitting for long periods of time. After a few minutes of walking the pain decreases, because walking stretches the fascia. For some people the pain subsides but returns after spending long periods of time on their feet.
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
As heel pain is basically a stress problem in the tissues of the heel, the main treatment is to reduce stress. Your doctor will advise you about weight loss and appropriate footwear. A soft heel pad is useful to wear in your shoe to act as a shock-absorber when you walk. If you have a stiff ankle or tight Achilles tendon a physiotherapist can advise on exercises for these. Stretching the Achilles tendon and plantar fascia is very effective general treatment for many patients. If you have a high-arched or flat foot, a podiatrist may advise an insole to reduce stress. Simple pain-killers such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatory medicines can help reduce the pain. Ask advice from your doctor or pharmacist before taking anti-inflammatory medicines as they can have troublesome side-effects in some people. The simple measures above will help the majority of people with heel pain. If the pain continues, a splint to wear on your ankle at night to prevent your Achilles tendon tightening up while you are asleep is often very effective in improving the severe pain that many people get first thing in the morning and breaking the cycle of pain. Your GP or an orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeon or rheumatologist may inject some steroid into the attachment of the plantar fascia to damp down the inflammation. These measures will reduce the pain in most people who are not helped by simple treatment. If you still have pain after one or two injections, your doctor may want to investigate your problem a bit further. If no other medical problem or cause of stress in your heel is found, a number of other treatments can be tried. Further physiotherapy, wearing a plaster cast to rest the inflamed tissues, pain control treatments such as transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS) or acupuncture. Only if all non-surgical treatments fail would an operation be considered.
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.
Maintaining flexible and strong muscles in your calves, ankles, and feet can help prevent some types of heel pain. Always stretch and warm-up before exercising. Wear comfortable, properly fitting shoes with good arch support and cushioning. Make sure there is enough room for your toes.