Heel pain is a very challenging problem as it can be local and/or referred. It has been more prevalent recently due to the hard grounds on which people have to run. Commonly people will present with heel pain, thrusting an x-ray at you, and being adamant that the problem is a ?heel spur?. This is defined as a small bone that grows from the heel, directing forwards towards the toes. This may be as small as 1 mm to anything as large as 8 - 10 mm. Most of the time, this is an incidental finding, as there many heels that are pain free that have heel spurs evident on x-rays. The spur is thought to be a result of traction of the plantar fascia on the heel. In some cases, the spur may contribute to the symptoms, but is not the main cause. This should be explained very carefully to the patient, as the focus on the spur may limit the recovery, as the patient may believe that the only way to eliminate the pain is to remove the spur.
There are many reasons why people experience heel pain. Based on what we see in our office, heel pain affects, probably more than one in every four people. A lot of this is caused from conditions within the foot. These conditions could be related to hyper pronation, which is where you get a collapse of the foot or even a high arch of the foot called cavus foot. The underlying cause is something internal, within the bone structure. These problems are usually something you will have all your life. Hyper pronation is a hereditary issue where you can get an under development of a particular bone, usually in the ankle, and it causes a dislocation or a misalignment of the ankle on the heel. It throws off, not only the foot with the bones, joints and ligaments of the foot, but also the bones in the ankle. It affects the internal rotation of the knee, hip, back and causes issues within those areas as well. Hyper pronation is a pretty common, but very under diagnosed condition.
The heel can be painful in many different ways, depending on the cause. Plantar fasciitis commonly causes intense heel pain along the bottom of the foot during the first few steps after getting out of bed in the morning. This heel pain often goes away once you start to walk around, but it may return in the late afternoon or evening. Although X-ray evidence suggests that about 10% of the general population has heels spurs, many of these people do not have any symptoms. In others, heel spurs cause pain and tenderness on the undersurface of the heel that worsen over several months. In a child, this condition causes pain and tenderness at the lower back portion of the heel. The affected heel is often sore to the touch but not obviously swollen. Bursitis involving the heel causes pain in the middle of the undersurface of the heel that worsens with prolonged standing and pain at the back of the heel that worsens if you bend your foot up or down. Pump bump, this condition causes a painful enlargement at the back of the heel, especially when wearing shoes that press against the back of the heel. Heel bruises, like bruises elsewhere in the body, may cause pain, mild swelling, soreness and a black-and-blue discoloration of the skin. Achilles tendonitis, this condition causes pain at the back of the heel where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel. The pain typically becomes worse if you exercise or play sports, and it often is followed by soreness, stiffness and mild swelling. A trapped nerve can cause pain, numbness or tingling almost anywhere at the back, inside or undersurface of the heel. In addition, there are often other symptoms, such as swelling or discoloration - if the trapped nerve was caused by a sprain, fracture or other injury.
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
As heel pain is basically a stress problem in the tissues of the heel, the main treatment is to reduce stress. Your doctor will advise you about weight loss and appropriate footwear. A soft heel pad is useful to wear in your shoe to act as a shock-absorber when you walk. If you have a stiff ankle or tight Achilles tendon a physiotherapist can advise on exercises for these. Stretching the Achilles tendon and plantar fascia is very effective general treatment for many patients. If you have a high-arched or flat foot, a podiatrist may advise an insole to reduce stress. Simple pain-killers such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatory medicines can help reduce the pain. Ask advice from your doctor or pharmacist before taking anti-inflammatory medicines as they can have troublesome side-effects in some people. The simple measures above will help the majority of people with heel pain. If the pain continues, a splint to wear on your ankle at night to prevent your Achilles tendon tightening up while you are asleep is often very effective in improving the severe pain that many people get first thing in the morning and breaking the cycle of pain. Your GP or an orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeon or rheumatologist may inject some steroid into the attachment of the plantar fascia to damp down the inflammation. These measures will reduce the pain in most people who are not helped by simple treatment. If you still have pain after one or two injections, your doctor may want to investigate your problem a bit further. If no other medical problem or cause of stress in your heel is found, a number of other treatments can be tried. Further physiotherapy, wearing a plaster cast to rest the inflamed tissues, pain control treatments such as transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS) or acupuncture. Only if all non-surgical treatments fail would an operation be considered.
It is rare to need an operation for heel pain. It would only be offered if all simpler treatments have failed and, in particular, you are a reasonable weight for your height and the stresses on your heel cannot be improved by modifying your activities or footwear. The aim of an operation is to release part of the plantar fascia from the heel bone and reduce the tension in it. Many surgeons would also explore and free the small nerves on the inner side of your heel as these are sometimes trapped by bands of tight tissue. This sort of surgery can be done through a cut about 3cm long on the inner side of your heel. Recently there has been a lot of interest in doing the operation by keyhole surgery, but this has not yet been proven to be effective and safe. Most people who have an operation are better afterwards, but it can take months to get the benefit of the operation and the wound can take a while to heal fully. Tingling or numbness on the side of the heel may occur after operation.
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Being overweight can place excess pressure and strain on your feet, particularly on your heels. Losing weight, and maintaining a healthy weight by combining regular exercise with a healthy, balanced diet, can be beneficial for your feet. Wearing appropriate footwear is also important. Ideally, you should wear shoes with a low to moderate heel that supports and cushions your arches and heels. Avoid wearing shoes with no heels.