Plantar Fasciitis (Heel Pain)
Plantar fasciitis (or heel pain) is commonly traced to an inflammation on the bottom of the foot. Our practice can evaluate arch pain, and may prescribe customized shoe inserts called orthoses to help alleviate the pain.
Plantar fasciitis is caused by inflammation of the connective tissue that stretches from the base of the toes, across the arch of the foot, to the point at which it inserts into the heel bone. Also called “heel spur syndrome,” the condition can usually be successfully treated with conservative measures such as use of anti-inflammatory medications and ice packs, stretching exercises, orthotic devices, and physical therapy.
What is the problem?
A pain has developed at the bottom of the heel, and it has gotten worse. The patient was not aware of having had any injury that caused it.
What does it feel like?
It feels like a dull ache most of the time, but when the patient first gets out of the bed in the morning, or when getting up after sitting for a period of time during the day, the pain in the heel is impressive. It almost feels like the heel has been bruised, from falling on a rock barefoot, but it is worse.
Testing for Plantar Fasciitis
Since there are several causes for heel pain, we need to pin-point the exact location of the pain is in order to diagnose the basic underlying cause for the problem. Testing is simple and generally pain-free. It’s important to find out WHERE it hurts, not just HOW MUCH it hurts. After excluding general medical conditions that might cause the condition, the exam is localized to the heel and surrounding structures. The important anatomical structures are the heel bone (calcaneus), the tissues that attach to the bottom of the heel (plantar fascia) and the nerves that pass from the leg into the bottom of the foot (posterior tibial nerve and its branches). The exam begins with an assessment of the blood vessels and nerves that end in the foot because blood and nerve supply affect treatment.
- Palpation of the point where the plantar fascia attaches to the heel bone. It is a good idea to tell patients to expect some discomfort as we palpate the heel bone, but that we are not going to push harder than necessary. Last, we feel the area over the side of the ankle where the nerves pass into the foot to rule-out nerve compression as the source of the problem.
- Palpation of the nerve on the side of the ankle. In the process of this portion of the exam, it is important to maintain pressure over the nerve for about 30 seconds in order to simulate the kind of progressive compressive force that irritates the nerve enough to radiate to the bottom of the heel. During the exam, a positive test occurs when the patient reports experiencing pain. Finally, we will do a radiographic examination of the feet using an X-ray machine looking for evidence of abnormal bone growths and a diagnostic ultrasound which will allow us to visualize the plantar fascia to determine its thickness and to see if there is any surrounding fluid accumulation or tear.
In some instances, we might need to follow-up with an MRI to better display abnormal soft tissue or bone growths. In some instances we may want to evaluate the conduction of nerve impulses that course through the nerves into the foot.
What causes Plantar Fasciitis?
There is a tight ligament (band of fibrous tissue) that stretches across the arch, from the ball of the foot to the heel bone, called the Plantar Fascia. When we walk, our feet have a tendency to roll inward, toward each other, in a motion that we call pronation. When feet pronate, they flatten, stretch out and the arch elongates. This causes excessive pulling on the Plantar Fascia ligament and attachment of the ligament to the heel bone begins to separate. An injury occurs where the ligament progressively tears off of the heel, fiber by fiber. Bleeding occurs next to the bone and inflammatory fluids accumulate between the ligament and the bone, forming a Bursitis, or fluid-filled sack. Over time, the body lays down scar tissue, in an attempt to “glue” the detached ligament fibers back on to the bottom of the heel bone. Over the course of 3-5 years, the scar tissue calcifies, and this calcium deposit eventually becomes visible on X-Ray as the Heel Spur. This inflammation of this Plantar fascia ligament is called Plantar Fasciitis, and in addition to the Bursitis, is what causes the pain. The bone spur itself has no nerve endings and doesn’t hurt. It is just an associated finding that tells us that the inflammatory process, the Bursitis and Plantar Fasciitis have been present for a long time.
There are several reasons that this chronic injury can occur. Recent weight gain and increased activity level often start an episode. A person who has been mostly sedentary, who suddenly takes up an exercise program of walking or running is a prime candidate. A change of shoes from well supporting walking or athletic shoes to floppy sandals can do it. When the arch of the foot collapses or flattens, the Plantar Fascia is stretched, causing the injury where it attaches to the heel bone. Finally, conditions which cause generalized increased inflammation, like osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis can cause
It is better to rest the heel as much as practicable. When you are off your feet, the injury is healing and getting better. When you are standing, without any foot support, the heel is getting injured further. When you are standing when wearing orthotics (foot supports) and well supportive shoes, the injury decreases dramatically, but usually is not eliminated altogether. So, during the treatment period, if you have the choice of sitting or standing, sit ! If there are no health reasons to avoid them, a week’s use of an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication may eliminate the pain.
How does a podiatrist treat Plantar Fasciitis?
First, we need to protect the bone from the pulling of the plantar fascia. We do this by using some kind of in-shoe arch supporting device – an orthotic. They come in pairs, one for each foot.
Next, we encourage the patient to stretch the tissue on the bottom of the foot. Three times a day, sit erect with the legs extended and loop a belt, scarf or towel around the forefoot. Pull the forefoot toward the upper leg. Expect to feel a mild pulling sensation at the back of the leg and in the arch. Stretching should not be done to the point of pain. This position is held for 30 seconds, and is repeated three times. The three repetitions at 30 seconds, three times-a-day is easy to remember.
Because of the risk of stomach upset non-cortisone anti-inflammatory medication can only be used for some patients and only for about one week. With a good response to the medication, it is a good idea to taper off over the next several days so as to avoid an abrupt rebound of pain.
In addition to the above, we begin an aggressive course of physical therapy and cortisone injections. For physical therapy, the doctor may employ ultrasound, galvanic stimulation or any of a number of anti-inflammatory modalities in the office or at the offices of a physical therapist. The most effective way for physical therapy to work is if it is applied regularly, at least three times a week.
Cortisone injections are usually done at weekly intervals, and most cases require 1-3 injections. The skin can be desensitized before the injection with a cold freezing spray designed to provide brief anesthesia. The injection is done from the inner side of the heel, not from the bottom.
It is helpful to strap the arch with tape combined with an arch pad. This serves as a temporary simulation of the support that an Orthotic will provide on a more permanent basis.
Heel spur removal is done only in the rare instance where the bony projection is directed downwards.
For that smaller group of patients who’ve gotten their heel pain from a thinned Heel Fat Pad, a very effective treatment lies in a maximally cushioned and padded Orthotic, or other forms of padding. Wearing a good running shoe is a good start.
How can I prevent it from coming back?
Recurrence is rare after treatment, if the patient continues to employ good mechanical foot control by continuing to wear orthotics and good supportive walking or athletic shoes.