Most cases of heel pain are caused when a band of tissue in the foot, known as the plantar fascia, becomes damaged and thickens. Plantar fasciitis is the medical term for the thickening of the plantar fascia. The plantar fascia is a tough and flexible band of tissue that runs under the sole of the foot. It connects the heel bone with the bones of the foot, and acts as a kind of shock absorber to the foot. Sudden damage, or damage that occurs over many months or years, can cause tiny tears (microtears) to develop inside the tissue of the plantar fascia. This can cause the plantar fascia to thicken, resulting in heel pain. The surrounding tissue and the heel bone can also sometimes become inflamed.
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.
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.
Depending on the condition, the cause of heel pain is diagnosed using a number of tests, including medical history, physical examination, including examination of joints and muscles of the foot and leg, X-rays.
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).
Surgery is a last resort in the treatment of heel pain. Physicians have developed many procedures in the last 100 years to try to cure heel pain. Most procedures that are commonly used today focus on several areas, remove the bone spur (if one is present), release the plantar fascia (plantar fasciotomy), release pressure on the small nerves in the area. Usually the procedure is done through a small incision on the inside edge of the foot, although some surgeons now perform this type of surgery using an endoscope. An endoscope is a tiny TV camera that can be inserted into a joint or under the skin to allow the surgeon to see the structures involved in the surgery. By using the endoscope, a surgeon can complete the surgery with a smaller incision and presumably less damage to normal tissues. It is unclear whether an endoscopic procedure for this condition is better than the traditional small incision. Surgery usually involves identifying the area where the plantar fascia attaches to the heel and releasing the fascia partially from the bone. If a small spur is present this is removed. The small nerves that travel under the plantar fascia are identified and released from anything that seems to be causing pressure on the nerves. This surgery can usually be done on an outpatient basis. This means you can leave the hospital the same day.
Flexibility is key when it comes to staving off the pain associated with these heel conditions. The body is designed to work in harmony, so stretching shouldn?t be concentrated solely on the foot itself. The sympathetic tendons and muscles that move the foot should also be stretched and gently exercised to ensure the best results for your heel stretches. Take the time to stretch thighs, calves and ankles to encourage healthy blood flow and relaxed muscle tension that will keep pain to a minimum. If ice is recommended by a doctor, try freezing a half bottle of water and slowly rolling your bare foot back and forth over it for as long as is comfortable. The use of elastic or canvas straps to facilitate stretching of an extended leg can also be helpful when stretching without an assistant handy. Once cleared by a doctor, a daily regimen of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like Naproxen Sodium will keep pain at bay and increase flexibility in those afflicted by heel pain. While this medication is not intended to act as a substitute for medical assessments, orthopedics or stretching, it can nonetheless be helpful in keeping discomfort muted enough to enjoy daily life. When taking any medication for your heel pain, be sure to follow directions regarding food and drink, and ask your pharmacist about possible interactions with existing medications or frequent activities.