Do You Really 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

The most common cause of heel pain is a pull on the heel bone exerted by the muscles and ligaments (plantar fascia shown in illustration above) that support the arch of the foot. This is an overuse condition similar to bursitis of the shoulder or tennis elbow. Plantar fasciitis is typically very painful in the morning during the first few steps, after sitting and again at the end of the day.

Symptoms

Depending on the specific form of heel pain, symptoms may vary. Pain stemming from plantar fasciitis or heel spurs is particularly acute following periods of rest, whether it is after getting out of bed in the morning, or getting up after a long period of sitting. In many cases, pain subsides during activity as injured tissue adjusts to damage, but can return again with prolonged activity or when excessive pressure is applied to the affected area. Extended periods of activity and/or strain of the foot can increase pain and inflammation in the foot. In addition to pain, heel conditions can also generate swelling, bruising, and redness. The foot may also be hot to the touch, experience tingling, or numbness depending on the condition.

Diagnosis

In most cases, your GP or a podiatrist (a specialist in foot problems and foot care) should be able to diagnose the cause of your heel pain by asking about your symptoms and medical history, examining your heel and foot.

Non Surgical Treatment

Most patients get better with the help of nonsurgical treatments. Stretches for the calf muscles on the back of the lower leg take tension off the plantar fascia. A night splint can be worn while you sleep. The night splint keeps your foot from bending downward. It places a mild stretch on the calf muscles and the plantar fascia. Some people seem to get better faster when using a night splint. They report having less heel pain when placing the sore foot on the ground in the morning. There have been a few studies that reported no significant benefit from adding night splinting to a program of antiinflammatory meds and stretching. Other studies report the benefits of short-term casting to unload the heel, immobilize the plantar fascia, and reduce repetitive microtrauma. Supporting the arch with a well fitted arch support, or orthotic, may also help reduce pressure on the plantar fascia. Placing a special type of insert into the shoe, called a heel cup, can reduce the pressure on the sore area. Wearing a silicone heel pad adds cushion to a heel that has lost some of the fat pad through degeneration. Shock wave therapy is a newer form of nonsurgical treatment. It uses a machine to generate shock wave pulses to the sore area. Patients generally receive the treatment once each week for up to three weeks. It is not known exactly why it works for plantar fasciitis. It's possible that the shock waves disrupt the plantar fascial tissue enough to start a healing response. The resulting release of local growth factors and stem cells causes an increase in blood flow to the area. Recent studies indicate that this form of treatment can help ease pain, while improving range of motion and function.

Surgical Treatment

With the advancements in technology and treatments, if you do need to have surgery for the heel, it is very minimal incision that?s done. And the nice thing is your recovery period is short and you should be able to bear weight right after the surgery. This means you can get back to your weekly routine in just a few weeks. Recovery is a lot different than it used to be and a lot of it is because of doing a minimal incision and decreasing trauma to soft tissues, as well as even the bone. So if you need surgery, then your recovery period is pretty quick.

Prevention

Foot Pain

Wear properly fitting shoes. Place insoles or inserts in your shoes to help control abnormal foot motion. Maintain a healthy weight. Exercise and do foot stretches as they have been shown to decrease the incidence of heel pain.

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