What Is Heel Pain

Plantar Fascitis

Overview

Heel pain is most commonly caused by plantar fasciitis, which is the swelling of the tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes at the bottom part of the foot, also known as the plantar fascia. Plantar fasciitis is often described as sharp pain in the middle of the heel, which is typically worse after periods of rest when fascia contracts. The pain usually becomes more bearable as the muscles loosen up during the low-impact walking, but can return even worse after extended periods of walking or standing. The plantar fascia serves as a shock absorber and supports the foot’s arch. Too much tension on the plantar fascia can cause inflammation and swelling. Fortunately in most cases, plantar fasciitis treatment is fairly conservative. Plantar fasciitis exercises, medications and orthotics are usually all that’s needed to manage the pain. Most severe cases may require surgery.




Causes

There are a number of plantar fasciitis causes. The plantar fascia ligament is like a rubber band and loosens and contracts with movement. It also absorbs significant weight and pressure. Because of this function, plantar fasciitis can easily occur from a number of reasons. Among the most common is an overload of physical activity or exercise. Athletes are particularly prone to plantar fasciitis and commonly suffer from it. Excessive running, jumping, or other activities can easily place repetitive or excessive stress on the tissue and lead to tears and inflammation, resulting in moderate to severe pain. Athletes who change or increase the difficulty of their exercise routines are also prone to overdoing it and causing damage. Another common cause of plantar fasciitis is arthritis. Certain types of arthritis can cause inflammation to develop in tendons, resulting in plantar fasciitis. This cause is particularly common among elderly patients. Diabetes is also a factor that can contribute to further heel pain and damage, particularly among the elderly. Among the most popular factors that contribute to plantar fasciitis is wearing incorrect shoes. In many cases, shoes either do not fit properly, or provide inadequate support or cushioning. While walking or exercising in improper shoes, weight distribution becomes impaired, and significantly stress can be added to the plantar fascia ligament.




Symptoms

Plantar fasciitis generally occurs in one foot. Bilateral plantar fasciitis is unusual and tends to be the result of a systemic arthritic condition that is exceptionally rare among athletes. Males suffer from a somewhat greater incidence of plantar fasciitis than females, perhaps as a result of greater weight coupled with greater speed and ground impact, as well as less flexibility in the foot. Typically, the sufferer of plantar fasciitis experiences pain upon rising after sleep, particularly the first step out of bed. Such pain is tightly localized at the bony landmark on the anterior medial tubercle of the calcaneus. In some cases, pain may prevent the athlete from walking in a normal heel-toe gait, causing an irregular walk as means of compensation. Less common areas of pain include the forefoot, Achilles tendon, or subtalar joint. After a brief period of walking, the pain usually subsides, but returns again either with vigorous activity or prolonged standing or walking. On the field, an altered gait or abnormal stride pattern, along with pain during running or jumping activities are tell-tale signs of plantar fasciitis and should be given prompt attention. Further indications of the injury include poor dorsiflexion (lifting the forefoot off the ground) due to a shortened gastroc complex, (muscles of the calf). Crouching in a full squat position with the sole of the foot flat on the ground can be used as a test, as pain will preclude it for the athlete suffering from plantar fasciitis, causing an elevation of the heel due to tension in the gastroc complex.




Diagnosis

A health care professional will ask you whether you have the classic symptoms of first-step pain and about your activities, including whether you recently have intensified your training or changed your exercise pattern. Your doctor often can diagnose plantar fasciitis based on your history and symptoms, together with a physical examination. If the diagnosis is in doubt, your doctor may order a foot X-ray, bone scan or nerve conduction studies to rule out another condition, such as a stress fracture or nerve problem.




Non Surgical Treatment

Your doctor will determine what treatment is best for your condition. The most common treatments for plantar fasciitis include icing the affected area, inserting custom-made orthotics into your shoes, massaging the plantar fascia, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), steroid injections, strengthening the foot, wearing a night splint, wearing shoes with arch support, physical therapy, stretching the calf muscles, shockwave therapy or radiotherapy. To keep the plantar fascia lengthened as you sleep, your doctor may ask you to wear night splints. In the morning, taking your first steps is less painful because the plantar fascia remains stretched throughout the night. Avoiding activities such as walking or running helps the healing process. Losing weight, if it is a factor in the condition, may help to reduce the stress placed on the plantar fascia.

Foot Pain




Surgical Treatment

Most patients have good results from surgery. However, because surgery can result in chronic pain and dissatisfaction, it is recommended only after all nonsurgical measures have been exhausted. The most common complications of release surgery include incomplete relief of pain and nerve damage.




Prevention

An important part of prevention is to perform a gait analysis to determine any biomechanical problems with the foot which may be causing the injury. This can be corrected with orthotic inserts into the shoes. If symptoms do not resolve then surgery is an option, however this is more common for patients with a rigid high arch where the plantar fascia has shortened.

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