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What Causes Heel Aches

Overview

Painful Heel

There are two categories of Heel Pain. pain on the bottom (plantar) and pain on the back of the heel bone (calcaneus). The most common cause pain on the bottom of the heel is plantar fasciitis or better known as heel spur syndrome. Another common cause is nerve entrapment (~70% of patients have both plantar fasciitis and nerve entrapment) and less commonly, stress fracture, arthritis, tendonitis, a cyst or a combination of these. Pain on the back of the heel most often involves the insertion of the Achilles tendon into the bone. Due to the multi-factorial nature of heel pain, the earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the outcome.

Causes

Plantar fasciitis can come from a number of underlying causes. Finding the precise reason for the heel pain is sometimes difficult. As you can imagine, when the foot is on the ground a tremendous amount of force (the full weight of the body) is concentrated on the plantar fascia. This force stretches the plantar fascia as the arch of the foot tries to flatten from the weight of your body. This is just how the string on a bow is stretched by the force of the bow trying to straighten. This leads to stress on the plantar fascia where it attaches to the heel bone. Small tears of the fascia can result. These tears are normally repaired by the body. As this process of injury and repair repeats itself over and over again, a bone spur (a pointed outgrowth of the bone) sometimes forms as the body's response to try to firmly attach the fascia to the heelbone. This appears on an X-ray of the foot as a heel spur. Bone spurs occur along with plantar fasciitis but they are not the cause of the problem. As we age, the very important fat pad that makes up the fleshy portion of the heel becomes thinner and degenerates (starts to break down). This can lead to inadequate padding on the heel. With less of a protective pad on the heel, there is a reduced amount of shock absorption. These are additional factors that might lead to plantar fasciitis. Some physicians feel that the small nerves that travel under the plantar fascia on their way to the forefoot become irritated and may contribute to the pain. But some studies have been able to show that pain from compression of the nerve is different from plantar fasciitis pain. In many cases, the actual source of the painful heel may not be defined clearly. Other factors that may contribute to the development of plantar fasciitis include obesity, trauma, weak plantar flexor muscles, excessive foot pronation (flat foot) or other alignment problems in the foot and or ankle, and poor footwear.

Symptoms

Pain in the bottom of the heel is the most common symptom. The pain is often described as a knife-like, pinpoint pain that is worse in the morning and generally improves throughout the day. By the end of the day the pain may be replaced by a dull ache that improves with rest. The pain results from stretching the damaged tissues. For the same reason atheletes' pain occurs during beginning stages of exercise and is relieved over time as warm-up loosens the fascia. Plantar fasciitis onset is usually gradual, only flaring up during exercise. If pain is ignored, it can eventually interfere with walking and overall, plantar fasciitis accounts for about ten percent of all running injuries.

Diagnosis

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

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

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.

Prevention

Heel Discomfort

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.
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