Understand Heel Aches

Overview

Heel Discomfort

Every time you take a step, one of your heels has to support the whole weight of your body. As you move, the load is equal to 20 times your own body weight. The load is softened by a pillow of fat under the heel and a large sinew or ligament (the fibrous tissue that joins muscle and bone together) under the sole of the foot. This sinew is called the plantar fascia and it pulls the heel bone forward (in opposition to the Achilles tendon, which pulls it backwards). If an athlete does not warm up properly or a person with a sedentary job exercises heavily during the weekends, they might overload the muscles of the calf or strain the Achilles tendon, which joins these muscles to the heel bone. When overloaded the tendon becomes tight and painfully inflamed, which places extra strain on the plantar fascia and muscles in the soles of the foot. The strained plantar fascia becomes inflamed and may even develop tiny cracks. This is known as plantar fasciitis. Every time you sit down, sleep or otherwise rest your legs, the muscles of the sole of the foot will contract in an attempt to protect the damaged sinew. The pain in the heel will then no longer be felt. But when you get up again and put weight on the foot, the foot and ankle may feel stiff (because of the inflammation) and the pain will return either at the back of the heel or on the soles of the feet. When you start to move, the plantar fascia may crack even more causing a vicious cycle of damage and Heel Pain. Inflammation at the point where the Achilles tendon (at the back of the heel) or the plantar fascia (under the heel) join the heel bone (a bone known as the Calcaneum) stimulates cells that form bone to deposit bone in this area, eventually leading to the build up of a bony prominence on the heel bone called a calcaneal spur. But it’s not the spur itself that causes the pain. The spur is a sign of chronic inflammation in the connective tissues, which is the result of a prolonged overload. It should also be pointed out that heel spurs can occur on their own, without plantar fasciitis or pain, or may be linked to some types of arthritis (inflammation of the joints). And plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis don’t necessarily lead to spur formation.

Causes

In our pursuit of healthy bodies, pain can be an enemy. In some instances, however, it is of biological benefit. Pain that occurs right after an injury or early in an illness may play a protective role, often warning us about the damage we’ve suffered. When we sprain an ankle, for example, the pain warns us that the ligament and soft tissues may be frayed and bruised, and that further activity may cause additional injury. Pain, such as may occur in our heels, also alerts us to seek medical attention. This alert is of utmost importance because of the many afflictions that contribute to heel pain.

Symptoms

Symptoms may also include swelling that is quite tender to the touch. Standing, walking and constrictive shoe wear typically aggravate symptoms. Many patients with this problem are middle-aged and may be slightly overweight. Another group of patients who suffer from this condition are young, active runners.

Diagnosis

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

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

Extracorporeal shockwave therapy (EST) is a fairly new type of non-invasive treatment. Non-invasive means it does not involve making cuts into your body. EST involves using a device to deliver high-energy soundwaves into your heel. The soundwaves can sometimes cause pain, so a local anaesthetic may be used to numb your heel. It is claimed that EST works in two ways. It is thought to have a “numbing” effect on the nerves that transmit pain signals to your brain, help stimulate and speed up the healing process. However, these claims have not yet been definitively proven. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance about the use of EST for treating plantar fasciitis. NICE states there are no concerns over the safety of EST, but there are uncertainties about how effective the procedure is for treating heel pain. Some studies have reported that EST is more effective than surgery and other non-surgical treatments, while other studies found the procedure to be no better than a placebo (sham treatment).

Prevention

Heel Discomfort

Preventing heel pain is crucial to avoid pain that can easily interrupt a busy or active lifestyle. Athletes can prevent damage by stretching the foot and calf both before and after an exercise routine. The plantar fascia ligament can be stretched by using a tennis ball or water bottle and rolling it across the bottom of the foot. With regular stretching, the stretching and flexibility of tissue through the foot can be significantly improved, helping to prevent damage and injury. Athletes should also ease into new or more difficult routines, allowing the plantar fascia and other tissue to become accustomed to the added stress and difficulty. Running up hills is also common among athletes in their routines. However, this activity should be reduced since it places an increased amount of stress on the plantar fascia and increases the risk of plantar fasciitis. Maintaining a healthy weight is also an essential heel pain prevention technique. Obesity brings additional weight and stress on the heel of the foot, causing damage and pain in the heel as well as in other areas of the foot.