Heel pain is most often caused by plantar fasciitis, a condition that is sometimes also called heel spur syndrome when a spur is present. Heel pain may also be due to other causes, such as a stress fracture, tendonitis, arthritis, nerve irritation or, rarely, a cyst.
Because there are several potential causes, it is important to have heel pain properly diagnosed. A foot and ankle surgeon is able to distinguish between all the possibilities and to determine the underlying source of your heel pain.
What Is Plantar Fasciitis?
Plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of the band of tissue (the plantar fascia) that extends from the heel to the toes. In this condition, the fascia first becomes irritated and then inflamed, resulting in heel pain.
The most common cause of plantar fasciitis relates to faulty structure of the foot. For example, people who have problems with their arches, either overly flat feet or high-arched feet, are more prone to developing plantar fasciitis.
Wearing nonsupportive footwear on hard, flat surfaces puts abnormal strain on the plantar fascia and can also lead to plantar fasciitis. This is particularly evident when one’s job requires long hours on the feet. Obesity and overuse may also contribute to plantar fasciitis.
The symptoms of plantar fasciitis are:
- Pain on the bottom of the heel
- Pain in the arch of the foot
- Pain that is usually worse upon arising
- Pain that increases over a period of months
- Swelling on the bottom of the heel
People with plantar fasciitis often describe the pain as worse when they get up in the morning or after they have been sitting for long periods of time. After a few minutes of walking, the pain decreases because walking stretches the fascia. For some people, the pain subsides but returns after spending long periods of time on their feet.
To arrive at a diagnosis, the foot and ankle surgeon will obtain your medical history and examine your foot. Throughout this process, the surgeon rules out all possible causes for your heel pain other than plantar fasciitis.
In addition, diagnostic imaging studies, such as x-rays or other imaging modalities, may be used to distinguish the different types of heel pain. Sometimes heel spurs are found in patients with plantar fasciitis, but these are rarely a source of pain. When they are present, the condition may be diagnosed as plantar fasciitis/heel spur syndrome.
Treatment of plantar fasciitis begins with first-line strategies, which you can begin at home and these seem to work almost 90% of the time:
- Stretching exercises. Exercises that stretch out the calf muscles help ease pain and assist with recovery.
- Avoid going barefoot. When you walk without shoes, you put undue strain and stress on your plantar fascia.
- Putting an ice pack on your heel for 20 minutes several times a day helps reduce inflammation. Place a thin towel between the ice and your heel; do not apply ice directly to the skin.
- Limit activities. Cut down on extended physical activities to give your heel a rest.
- Shoe modifications. Wearing supportive shoes that have good arch support and a slightly raised heel reduces stress on the plantar fascia.
- Oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may be recommended to reduce pain and inflammation.
If you still have pain after several weeks, see your foot and ankle surgeon, who may add one or more of these treatment approaches:
- Padding, taping and strapping. Placing pads in the shoe softens the impact of walking. Taping and strapping help support the foot and reduce strain on the fascia.
- Orthotic devices. Custom orthotic devices that fit into your shoe help correct the underlying structural abnormalities causing the plantar fasciitis.
- Injection therapy. In some cases, corticosteroid injections are used to help reduce the inflammation and relieve pain.
- Removable walking cast. A removable walking cast may be used to keep your foot immobile for a few weeks to allow it to rest and heal.
- Night splint. Wearing a night splint allows you to maintain an extended stretch of the plantar fascia while sleeping. This may help reduce the morning pain experienced by some patients.
- Physical therapy. Exercises and other physical therapy measures may be used to help provide relief.
When Is Surgery Needed?
Although most patients with plantar fasciitis respond to nonsurgical treatment, a small percentage of patients may require surgery. If, after several months of nonsurgical treatment, you continue to have heel pain, surgery will be considered. Your foot and ankle surgeon will discuss the surgical options with you and determine which approach would be most beneficial for you. Please see the section on heel pain treatment at www.FLOFAC.com
No matter what kind of treatment you undergo for plantar fasciitis, the underlying causes that led to this condition may remain. Therefore, you will need to continue with preventive measures. Wearing supportive shoes, stretching and using custom orthotic devices are the mainstay of long-term treatment for plantar fasciitis
What Is Haglund’s Deformity?
Haglund’s deformity is a bony enlargement on the back of the heel. The soft tissue near the Achilles tendon becomes irritated when the bony enlargement rubs against shoes. This often leads to painful bursitis, which is an inflammation of the bursa (a fluid-filled sac between the tendon and bone).
Haglund’s deformity is often called “pump bump” because the rigid backs of pump-style shoes can create pressure that aggravates the enlargement when walking. In fact, any shoes with a rigid back, such as ice skates, men’s dress shoes or women’s pumps, can cause this irritation.
To some extent, heredity plays a role in Haglund’s deformity. Inherited foot structures that can make one prone to developing this condition include:
- A high-arched foot
- A tight Achilles tendon
- A tendency to walk on the outside of the heel.
Haglund’s deformity can occur in one or both feet. The symptoms include:
- A noticeable bump on the back of the heel
- Pain in the area where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel
- Swelling in the back of the heel
- Redness near the inflamed tissue
After evaluating the patient’s symptoms, the foot and ankle surgeon will examine the foot. In addition, x-rays will be ordered to help the surgeon evaluate the structure of the heel bone.
Nonsurgical treatment of Haglund’s deformity is aimed at reducing the inflammation of the bursa. While these approaches can resolve the pain and inflammation, they will not shrink the bony protrusion. Nonsurgical treatment can include one or more of the following:
- Oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may be recommended to reduce the pain and inflammation. Ice. To reduce swelling, apply an ice pack to the inflamed area, placing a thin towel between the ice and the skin. Use ice for 20 minutes and then wait at least 40 minutes before icing again.
- Stretching exercises help relieve tension from the Achilles tendon. These exercises are especially important for the patient who has a tight heel cord.
- Heel lifts. Patients with high arches may find that heel lifts placed inside the shoe decrease the pressure on the heel.
- Heel pads. Pads placed inside the shoe cushion the heel and may help reduce irritation when walking.
- Shoe modification. Backless or soft backed shoes help avoid or minimize irritation.
- Physical therapy. Physical therapy modalities, such as ultrasound, can help to reduce inflammation.
- Orthotic devices. Custom arch supports control the motion in the foot.
- In some cases, casting may be necessary.
When Is Surgery Needed?
If nonsurgical treatment fails to provide adequate pain relief, surgery may be needed. The foot and ankle surgeon will determine the procedure that is best suited to your case. It is important to follow the surgeon’s instructions for postsurgical care.
To help prevent a recurrence of Haglund’s deformity:
- wear appropriate shoes; avoid shoes with a rigid heel back
- use arch supports or orthotic devices
- perform stretching exercises to prevent the Achilles tendon from tightening
- avoid running on hard surfaces and running uphill