The heel bone is the largest of the 26 bones in the human foot. But while it is a large, strong bone, it is often injured, and this pain can be quite disabling at times. Heel pain can occur in the front, back, sides or bottom of the heel. That the heel is commonly injured is not surprising, perhaps, given the amazing amount of stress it must endure during a day. Indeed, it is one of the most common injuries of the foot; we see some variation of heel pain in our offices an average of 5 or 6 times per day.
To understand the cause of the pain one must understand the anatomy of the foot and some basic mechanics in the function of the foot. A thick ligament, called the plantar fascia, is attached into the bottom of the heel and fans out into the ball of the foot, attaching into the base of the toes. The plantar fascia is made of dense, fibrous connective tissue that will stretch very little. It acts something like a shock absorber. As the foot impacts the ground with each step, it flattens out lengthening the foot. This action pulls on the plantar fascia, which stretches slightly. When the heel comes off the ground the tension on the ligament is released. Anything that causes the foot to flatten excessively will cause the plantar fascia to stretch greater that it is accustom to doing. One consequence of this is the development of small tears where the ligament attaches into the heel bone. When these small tears occur, a very small amount of bleeding occurs and the tension of the plantar fascia on the heel bone produces a spur on the bottom of the heel to form. Pain experienced in the bottom of the heel is not produced by the presence of the spur. The pain is due to excessive tension of the plantar fascia as it tears from its attachment into the heel bone. Heel spur formation is secondary to the excessive pull of the plantar fascia where it attaches to the heel bone. Many people have heel spurs at the attachment of the plantar fascia with out having any symptoms or pain. There are some less common causes of heel pain but they are relatively uncommon. There are several factors that cause the foot to flatten and excessively stretching the plantar fascia. The primary factor is the structure of a joint complex below the ankle joint, called the subtalar joint. The movement of this joint complex causes the arch of the foot to flatten and to heighten. Flattening of the arch of the foot is termed pronation and heightening of the arch is called supination. If there is excessive pronation of the foot during walking and standing, the plantar fascia is strained. Over time, this will cause a weakening of the ligament where it attaches into the heel bone, causing pain. When a person is at rest and off of their feet, the plantar fascia attempts to mend itself. Then, with the first few steps the fascia re-tears causing pain. Generally, after the first few steps the pain diminishes. This is why the heel pain tends to be worse the first few steps in the morning or after rest. Another factor that contributes to the flattening of the arch of the foot is tightness of the calf muscles. The calf muscle attaches into the foot by the achilles tendon into the back of the heel. When the calf muscle is tight it limits the movement of the ankle joint. When ankle joint motion is limited by the tightness of the calf muscle it forces the subtalar joint to pronate excessively. Excessive subtalar joint pronation can cause several different problems to occur in the foot. In this instance, it results in excessive tension of the plantar fascia. Tightness of the calf muscles can be a result of several different factors. Exercise, such as walking or jogging will cause the calf muscle to tighten. Inactivity or prolonged rest will also cause the calf muscle to tighten. Women who wear high heels and men who wear western style cowboy boots will, over time, develop tightness in the calf muscles.
Usually when a patient comes in they?ll explain that they have severe pain in the heel. It?s usually worse during the first step in the morning when they get out of bed. Many people say if they walk for a period of time, it gets a little bit better. But if they sit down and get back up, the pain will come back and it?s one of those intermittent come and go types of pain. Heel pain patients will say it feels like a toothache in the heel area or even into the arch area. A lot of times it will get better with rest and then it will just come right back. So it?s one of those nuisance type things that just never goes away. The following are common signs of heel pain and plantar fasciitis. Pain that is worse first thing in the morning. Pain that develops after heavy activity or exercise. Pain that occurs when standing up after sitting for a long period of time. Severe, toothache type of pain in the bottom of the heel.
Your doctor will listen to your complaints about your heel and examine you to see what is causing the pain, and whether anything else has started it off. If the cause of your pain seems obvious, your doctor may be happy to start treatment straight away. However, some tests may be helpful in ruling out other problems. Blood tests may be done for arthritis. An Xray will show any arthritis in the ankle or subtalar joint, as well as any fracture or cyst in the calcaneum. (It will also show a spur if you have one, but as we know this is not the cause of the pain.) Occasionally a scan may be used to help spot arthritis or a stress fracture.
Non Surgical Treatment
Clinical trials are underway investigating the use of radiofrequency to treat plantar fasciitis. It is a simple, noninvasive form of treatment. It allows for rapid recovery and pain relief within seven to 10 days. The radio waves promote angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels) in the area. Once again, increasing blood flow to the damaged tissue encourages a healing response. Antiinflammatory medications are sometimes used to decrease the inflammation in the fascia and reduce your pain. Studies show that just as many people get better with antiinflammatories as those who don't have any improvement. Since these medications are rarely used alone, it's difficult to judge their true effectiveness. A cortisone injection into the area of the fascia may be used but has not been proven effective. Studies show better results when ultrasound is used to improve the accuracy of needle placement. Cortisone should be used sparingly since it may cause rupture of the plantar fascia and fat pad degeneration and atrophy, making the problem worse. Botulinum toxin A otherwise known as BOTOX has been used to treat plantar fasciitis. The chemical is injected into the area and causes paralysis of the muscles. BOTOX has direct analgesic (pain relieving) and antiinflammatory effects. In studies so far, there haven't been any side effects of this treatment.
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.
replacement ankle straps for heels
A variety of steps can be taken to avoid heel pain and accompanying afflictions. Wear shoes that fit well-front, back, and sides-and have shock-absorbent soles, rigid shanks, and supportive heel counters. Wear the proper shoes for each activity. Do not wear shoes with excessive wear on heels or soles. Prepare properly before exercising. Warm up and do stretching exercises before and after running. Pace yourself when you participate in athletic activities. Don't underestimate your body's need for rest and good nutrition. If obese, lose weight.