Understanding Heel Discomfort

Overview

Foot Pain

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

One of the most common heel pain causes is a condition called plantar fasciitis. The tendons, ligaments, muscles, and joints in the feet all work together to allow you to move your feet to walk or run. When the plantar fascia, or the arch of the foot, is overused or injured, pain is felt in the heel. The most common heel pain causes include plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, Bursitis, Fibromyalgia, Bone fracture, Heel spurs, Arthritis, Tarsal tunnel syndrome, Sever?s Disease.

Symptoms

The primary symptom is pain in the heel area that varies in severity and location. The pain is commonly intense when getting out of bed or a chair. The pain often lessens when walking.

Diagnosis

Your GP or podiatrist (a healthcare professional who specialises in foot care) may be able to diagnose the cause of your heel pain by asking about your symptoms and examining your heel and foot. You will usually only need further tests if you have additional symptoms that suggest the cause of your heel pain is not inflammation, such as numbness or a tingling sensation in your foot - this could be a sign of nerve damage in your feet and legs (peripheral neuropathy), your foot feels hot and you have a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above - these could be signs of a bone infection, you have stiffness and swelling in your heel - this could be a sign of arthritis. Possible further tests may include, blood tests, X-rays - where small doses of radiation are used to detect problems with your bones and tissues, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or ultrasound scan, which are more detailed scans.

Non Surgical Treatment

There are many treatments for fasciitis. The most common initial treatment provided by the family doctor are anti-inflammatory medications. They may take the edge off the pain, but they don't often resolve the condition fully. Steroid injections, which deliver the medication directly to the most painful area, are usually more effective. Rest, ice, weight loss, taping, strapping, immobilization, physiotherapy, massage, stretching, heel cushions, acupuncture, night splints and extra-corporeal shock wave therapy all help some patients. Many patients, however, have a biomechanical cause such as excessively pronated feet to their complaint, and this may mean many of the treatments listed above will only provide temporary relief of fasciitis symptoms. When you stop the treatment, the pain often returns. This is why many cases of fasciitis respond well to orthoses, custom-made inserts that control the mechanical cause of the complaint. If you're considering orthoses, it's very important to have a podiatrist specializing in the field to examine you. There are many biomechanical factors to consider when assessing the need for literally dozens of types of devices available, so you need to have an expert to properly assess you. (Unfortunately, as is the case in many jurisdictions, there is no minimum standard of training required in British Columbia to make orthoses, and there are many fly-by-night operations around that employ salesmen with little, if any, training in understanding anatomy or foot function. The emphasis with these groups is on selling you some sort of device, rather than providing proper assessment, treatment and follow-up.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery to correct heel pain is generally only recommended if orthotic treatment has failed. There are some exceptions to this course of treatment and it is up to you and your doctor to determine the most appropriate course of treatment. Following surgical treatment to correct heel pain the patient will generally have to continue the use of orthotics. The surgery does not correct the cause of the heel pain. The surgery will eliminate the pain but the process that caused the pain will continue without the use of orthotics. If orthotics have been prescribed prior to surgery they generally do not have to be remade.

Prevention

Heel Discomfort

Heel pain is commonly caused from shoes that do not fit properly. In addition, shoes need to have ample cushioning and support, particularly through the heel, ball of the foot, and arch. Shoes should also be replaced if they become too worn. One sure sign of wear and tear is overly worn areas of a shoe's insoles. If the heel or ball of the foot is particularly worn, damage could easily occur since the bottom of the foot is not getting the cushioning it needs.

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