The heel is the first bone to contact the ground when walking and takes the full force of impact and the resulting shock of bearing weight during motion. 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. The most common cause of heel pain is plantar fasciitis. Plantar fasciitis is a stretching of the plantar fascia, a ligament that runs from the ball of foot through the arch and is attached to the heel. It is that attachment which becomes aggravated and typically causes pain after being on your feet for lengths of time. Abnormal motion of the foot (pronation) is one cause of plantar fasciitis. Heel spurs, which are abnormal bone growths coming off the heel, can also cause heel pain. Other causes include repetitive stress or shock to the heel, standing for prolonged periods or osteoarthritis. To prevent heel pain, always 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.
If you have pain behind your heel, you may have inflamed the area where the Achilles tendon inserts into the heel bone (retrocalcaneal bursitis). People often get this by running too much or wearing shoes that rub or cut into the back of the heel. Pain behind the heel may build slowly over time, causing the skin to thicken, become red and swell. You might develop a bump on the back of your heel that feels tender and warm to the touch. The pain might flare up when you first start an activity after resting. It often hurts too much to wear normal shoes. You may need an X-ray to see if you also have a bone spur.
The most common complaint is pain and stiffness in the bottom of the heel. Heel pain may be sharp or dull, and it may develop slowly over time or suddenly after intense activity. The pain is typically worse in the morning, when taking your first steps of the day. After standing or sitting for a while. When climbing stairs.
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
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.
Extracorporeal shockwave therapy (EST) is a fairly new type of non-invasive treatment. Non-invasive means it does not involve making cuts into your body. EST involves using a device to deliver high-energy soundwaves into your heel. The soundwaves can sometimes cause pain, so a local anaesthetic may be used to numb your heel. It is claimed that EST works in two ways. It is thought to have a "numbing" effect on the nerves that transmit pain signals to your brain, help stimulate and speed up the healing process. However, these claims have not yet been definitively proven. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance about the use of EST for treating plantar fasciitis. NICE states there are no concerns over the safety of EST, but there are uncertainties about how effective the procedure is for treating heel pain. Some studies have reported that EST is more effective than surgery and other non-surgical treatments, while other studies found the procedure to be no better than a placebo (sham treatment).
Prevention of heel pain involves reducing the stress on that part of the body. Tips include. Barefeet, when on hard ground make sure you are wearing shoes. Bodyweight, if you are overweight there is more stress on the heels when you walk or run. Try to lose weight. Footwear, footwear that has material which can absorb some of the stress placed on the heel may help protect it. Examples include heel pads. Make sure your shoes fit properly and do not have worn down heels or soles. If you notice a link between a particular pair of shoes and heel pain, stop wearing them. Rest, if you are especially susceptible to heel pain, try to spend more time resting and less time on your feet. It is best to discuss this point with a specialized health care professional. Sports, warm up properly before engaging in activities that may place lots of stress on the heels. Make sure you have proper sports shoes for your task.