A common cause of heel pain is the heel spur, a bony growth on the underside of the heel bone. The spur, visible by X-ray, appears as a protrusion that can extend forward as much as half an inch. When there is no indication of bone enlargement, the condition is sometimes referred to as “heel spur syndrome.” Heel spurs result from strain on the muscles and ligaments of the foot, by stretching of the long band of tissue that connects the heel and the ball of the foot, and by repeated tearing away of the lining or membrane that covers the heel bone. These conditions may result from biomechanical imbalance, running or jogging, improperly fitted or excessively worn shoes, or obesity.
One frequent cause of injury to the plantar fascia is pronation. Pronation is defined as the inward and downward action of the foot that occurs while walking, so that the foot’s arch flattens toward the ground (fallen arch). A condition known as excessive pronation creates a mechanical problem in the foot, and the portion of the plantar fascia attached to the heel bone can stretch and pull away from the bone. This damage can occur especially while walking and during athletic activities.
If your body has created calcium build-ups in an effort to support your plantar fascia ligament, each time you step down with your foot, the heel spur is being driven into the soft, fatty tissue which lines the bottom of your heel. Heel spur sufferers experience stabbing sensations because the hard protrusion is literally being jabbed into the heel pad. If left untreated, Plantar Fasciitis and heel spurs can erode the fatty pad of the heel and cause permanent damage to the foot. Fortunately, most cases can be resolved without medications or surgeries.
Diagnosis is made using a few different technologies. X-rays are often used first to ensure there is no fracture or tumor in the region. Then ultrasound is used to check the fascia itself to make sure there is no tear and check the level of scar tissue and damage. Neurosensory testing, a non-painful nerve test, can be used to make sure there is not a local nerve problem if the pain is thought to be nerve related. It is important to remember that one can have a very large heel spur and no plantar fasciitis issues or pain at all, or one can have a great deal of pain and virtually no spur at all.
Non Surgical Treatment
Bone spurs rarely require treatment unless they are causing frequent pain or damaging other tissues. Because heel spurs and plantar fasciitis are so closely related, they are usually treated the same way. Symptomatic treatment involves rest, especially from the activity that is contributing to the condition and making symptoms worse (although this may not be easy to discover, as problems can manifest several hours or days after the harmful activity has occurred). If you identify the offending activity, ice is recommended immediately following it. Stretching of the calf muscles after a short warm up is also a good idea and can be helpful. Stretching exercises that gently lengthen the calm muscle will relax the tissue surrounding the heel and should be done several times a day, especially in the morning and after prolonged sitting.
Surgery involves releasing a part of the plantar fascia from its insertion in the heel bone, as well as removing the spur. Many times during the procedure, pinched nerves (neuromas), adding to the pain, are found and removed. Often, an inflamed sac of fluid call an accessory or adventitious bursa is found under the heel spur, and it is removed as well. Postoperative recovery is usually a slipper cast and minimal weight bearing for a period of 3-4 weeks. On some occasions, a removable short-leg walking boot is used or a below knee cast applied.
Use orthotic inserts. You can purchase orthotics over the counter, or you can have orthotics specially fitted by your podiatrist. Try 1 of these options. Heel cups. These inserts will help to align the bones in your foot and to cushion your heel. Check your skin for blisters when you first start using heel cups. Also, your feet may sweat more with a heel cup, so change your socks and shoes often. Insoles. While you can pick up generic insoles at a drugstore, you may have more luck if you go to a store that sells athletic shoes. Push on the arch to make sure that it doesn’t collapse. If your insoles help but could use a little work, you can take them to a podiatrist to get them customized. Custom orthotics. A podiatrist can make a cast of your foot and provide you with custom-made orthotics. These may be more expensive, but they are made of materials specifically designed for your needs, and they can last up to 5 years if your podiatrist refurbishes them every 1 or 2 years. To find a podiatrist near you, look at the Web page for the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. Dynamic Insoles. Lack of elasticity in plantar fascia in the foot is for most people the real problem. If there is poor elasticity in the lengthwise tendons in the foot (plantar fascia) in relation to a person’s general condition, only a small additional strain is required for the pull on the tendons to cause damage to the tissues connecting the tendons to the heel bone. This will generate an inflamed condition called Plantar Fasciitis.