What Causes Heel Discomfort

Plantar Fascitis

Overview

The American College of Sports and Medicine (1) estimates that the average adult takes between 5,000 and 10,000 steps per day. The brunt of this activity is borne by the bones, muscles and ligaments of the foot. Healthy feet have strong, wonderfully flexible ligaments which are designed to support standing, walking and running. Plantar Fasciitis (pronounced “plantar fash-ee-eye-tis”) is defined as inflammation of, or damage to, one of the most important ligaments in the foot – the plantar fascia. The plantar fascia ligament is located along the sole of your foot. It is made up of fibrous tissue that stretches outward from the heel bone, like a strong piece of elastic, and then branches out across the arch and through the ball area of the foot toward the toes.


Causes

Each time we take a step forward, all of our body weight first rests on the heel of one foot. As our weight moves forward, the entire foot begins to bear the body’s weight, and the foot flattens and this places a great deal of pressure and strain on the plantar fascia. There is very little elasticity to the plantar fascia, so as it stretches only slightly; it pulls on its attachment to the heel. If the foot is properly aligned this pull causes no problems. However, if the foot is “pronated” (the foot rolls outward at the ankle, causing a break down of the inner side of the shoe), the arch falls excessively, and this causes an abnormal stretching of the relatively inflexible plantar fascia, which in turn pulls abnormally hard on the heel. The same pathology occurs with “supination” (the rolling inward of the foot, causing a break down of the outer side of the shoe). Supinated feet are relatively in flexible; usually have a high arch, and a short or tight plantar fascia. Thus as weight is transferred from the heel to the remainder of the foot, the tight plantar fascia hardly stretches at all, and pulls with great force on its attachment to the heel.


Symptoms

Plantar fasciitis is characterized by the following signs and symptoms. Acute plantar fasciitis, pain is usually worse in the morning but may improve when activity continues; if the plantar fasciitis is severe, activity will exacerbate the pain, pain will worsen during the day and may radiate to calf or forefoot, pain may be described anywhere from “minor pulling” sensation, to “burning”, or to “knife-like”, the plantar fascia may be taut or thickened, passive stretching of the plantar fascia or the patient standing on their toes may exacerbate symptoms, acute tenderness deep in the heel-pad along the insertion of the plantar aponeurosis at the medial calcaneal tuberosity and along the length of the plantar fascia, may have localized swelling. Chronic plantar fasciitis, plantar fasciitis is classified as “chronic” if it has not resolved after six months, pain occurs more distally along the aponeurosis and spreads into the Achilles tendon.


Diagnosis

Plantar fasciitis is one of many conditions causing “heel pain”. Some other possible causes include nerve compression either in the foot or in the back, stress fracture of the calcaneus, and loss of the fatty tissue pad under the heel. Plantar fasciitis can be distinguished from these and other conditions based on a history and examination done by a physician. It should be noted that heel spurs are often inappropriately thought to be the sole cause of heel pain. In fact, heel spurs are common and are nothing more than the bone’s response to traction or pulling-type forces from the plantar fascia and other muscles in the foot where they attach to the heel bone. They are commonly present in patients without pain, and frequently absent from those who have pain. It is the rare patient who has a truly enlarged and problematic spur requiring surgery.


Non Surgical Treatment

Over-the-counter Orthotics. A soft, over-the-counter orthotic (Prefabricated orthotic) with an accommodating arch support has proven to be quite helpful in the management of plantar fascia symptoms. Studies demonstrate that it is NOT necessary to obtain a custom orthotic for the treatment of this problem. Comfort Shoes. Shoes with a stiff sole, rocker-bottom contour, and a comfortable leather upper combined with an over-the-counter orthotic or a padded heel can be very helpful in the treatment of plantar fasciitis. Anti-Inflammatory Medication (NSAIDs): A short course of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications may be helpful in managing plantar fasciitis symptoms providing the patient does not have any contra-indications such as a history of stomach ulcers. Activity Modification Any activity that has recently been started, such as a new running routine or a new exercise at the gym that may have increased loading through the heel area, should be stopped on a temporary basis until the symptoms have resolved. At that point, these activities can be gradually started again. Also, any activity changes (ex. sitting more) that will limit the amount of time a patient is on their feet each day may be helpful. A night splint, which keeps the ankle in a neutral position (right angle) while the patient sleeps, can be very helpful in alleviating the significant morning symptoms. A night splint may be prescribed by your physician. Alternatively, it can be ordered online or even obtained in some medical supply stores. This splint is worn nightly for 1-3 weeks until the cycle of pain is broken. Furthermore, this splinting can be reinstituted for a short period of time is symptoms recur.

Plantar Fascia


Surgical Treatment

In unusual cases, surgical intervention is necessary for relief of pain. These should only be employed after non-surgical efforts have been used without relief. Generally, such surgical procedures may be completed on an outpatient basis in less than one hour, using local anesthesia or minimal sedation administrated by a trained anesthesiologist. In such cases, the surgeon may remove or release the injured and inflamed fascia, after a small incision is made in the heel. A surgical procedure may also be undertaken to remove bone spurs, sometimes as part of the same surgery addressing the damaged tissue. A cast may be used to immobilize the foot following surgery and crutches provided in order to allow greater mobility while keeping weight off the recovering foot during healing. After removal of the cast, several weeks of physical therapy can be used to speed recovery, reduce swelling and restore flexibility.

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