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Do You Really Understand Heel Pain?

Overview

Heel Discomfort

Heel pain accounts for one of the most common types of pain felt in the foot. Pain in the heel of the foot can be caused as a result of exercise, daily work routines or recreational activities. Some type of repetitive stress on the foot is often at the root of heel pain. The largest bone in the foot is the calcaneus, or heel bone. When we walk, the heel bone is usually the first part of the foot that hits the ground and is responsible for supporting much of the body's weight. This makes the heel of the foot prone to injury.

Causes

While heel pain has many causes, it is usually the result of faulty biomechanics (abnormalities in the way we walk). This can place too much stress on the heel bone and the soft tissues attached to it. The stress may also result from injury, or a bruise incurred while walking, running or jumping on hard surfaces; wearing poorly constructed footwear; or being significantly overweight. Systemic diseases such as arthritis and diabetes can also contribute to heel pain. A common cause of heel pain is the heel spur, a bony growth under the heel bone. There are no visible features on the heel, but a deep painful spot can be found in or around the middle of the sole of the heel (see diagram). Approximately 10 per cent of the population may have heel spurs without any pain. Heel spurs result from strain on the muscles of the foot. This may result from biomechanical imbalance, a condition occurring in many people. Both heel pain and heel spurs are frequently associated with an inflammation of the long band of tissue that connects the heel and the ball of the foot. The inflammation of this arch area is called plantar fasciitis. The inflammation may be aggravated by shoes that lack appropriate support, especially in the arch area, and by the chronic irritation that sometimes accompanies an athletic lifestyle.Excessive rolling in of the feet when walking. An inflamed bursa (bursitis), a small, irritated sack of fluid at the back of the heel. A neuroma (a nerve growth). Other soft-tissue growths. Heel bumps or ?pump bumps?, a bone enlargement at the back of the heel bone. Bruises or stress fractures to the heel bone.

Symptoms

Initially, this pain may only be present when first standing up after sleeping or sitting. As you walk around, the muscle and tendon loosen and the pain goes away. As this problem progresses, the pain can be present with all standing and walking. You may notice a knot or bump on the back of the heel. Swelling may develop. In some cases, pressure from the back of the shoe causes pain.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history and symptoms, such as have you had this type of heel pain before? When did your pain begin? Do you have pain upon your first steps in the morning or after your first steps after rest? Is the pain dull and aching or sharp and stabbing? Is it worse after exercise? Is it worse when standing? Did you fall or twist your ankle recently? Are you a runner? If so, how far and how often do you run? Do you walk or stand for long periods of time? What kind of shoes do you wear? Do you have any other symptoms? Your doctor may order a foot x-ray. You may need to see a physical therapist to learn exercises to stretch and strengthen your foot. Your doctor may recommend a night splint to help stretch your foot. Surgery may be recommended in some cases.

Non Surgical Treatment

Treatment for heel pain usually involves using a combination of techniques, such as stretches and painkillers, to relieve pain and speed up recovery. Most cases of heel pain get better within 12 months. Surgery may be recommended as a last resort if your symptoms don't improve after this time. Only 1 in 20 people with heel pain will need surgery. Whenever possible, rest the affected foot by not walking long distances and standing for long periods. However, you should regularly stretch your feet and calves using exercises such as those described. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can be used to help relieve pain. Some people also find applying an ice pack to the affected heel for 5-10 minutes can help relieve pain and inflammation. However, do not apply an ice pack directly to your skin. Instead, wrap it in a towel. If you do not have an ice pack, you can use a packet of frozen vegetables. Exercises designed to stretch both your calf muscles and your plantar fascia (the band of tissue that runs under the sole of your foot) should help relieve pain and improve flexibility in the affected foot. A number of stretching exercises are described below. It's usually recommended that you do the exercises on both legs, even if only one of your heels is affected by pain. This will improve your balance and stability, and help relieve heel pain. Keep a long towel beside your bed. Before you get out of bed in the morning, loop the towel around your foot and use it to pull your toes towards your body, while keeping your knee straight. Repeat three times on each foot. Place both hands on a wall at shoulder height, with one of your feet in front of the other. The front foot should be about 30cm (12 inches) away from the wall. With your front knee bent and your back leg straight, lean towards the wall until you feel a tightening in the calf muscles of your back leg. Then relax. Repeat this exercise 10 times before switching legs and repeating the cycle. You should practise wall stretches twice a day. Stand on a step of your stairs facing upstairs, using your banister for support. Your feet should be slightly apart, with your heels hanging off the back of the step. Lower your heels until you feel a tightening in your calves. Hold this position for about 40 seconds, before raising your heels back to the starting position. Repeat this procedure six times, at least twice a day. Sit on a chair, with your knees bent at right angles. Turn your feet sideways so your heels are touching and your toes are pointing in opposite directions. Lift the toes of the affected foot upwards, while keeping the heel firmly on the floor. You should feel your calf muscles and Achilles tendon (the band of tissue that connects your heel bone to your calf muscle) tighten. Hold this position for several seconds and then relax. Repeat this procedure 10 times, five to six times a day. While seated, roll the arch of your foot (the curved bottom part of the foot between your toes and heel) over a round object, such as a rolling pin, tennis ball or drinks can. Some people find that using a chilled can from their fridge has the added benefit of helping to relieve pain. Move your foot and ankle in all directions over the object for several minutes. Repeat the exercise twice a day. Your GP or podiatrist may advise you to change your footwear. You should avoid wearing flat-soled shoes, because they will not provide your heel with support and could make your heel pain worse. Ideally, you should wear shoes that cushion your heels and provide a good level of support to the arches of your feet. For women wearing high heels, and for men wearing heeled boots or brogues, can provide short- to medium-term pain relief, as they help reduce pressure on the heels. However, these types of shoes may not be suitable in the long term, because they can lead to further episodes of heel pain. Your GP or podiatrist can advise on footwear. Orthoses are insoles that fit inside your shoe to support your foot and help your heel recover. You can buy orthoses off-the-shelf from sports shops and larger pharmacies. Alternatively, your podiatrist should be able to recommend a supplier. If your pain does not respond to treatment and keeps recurring, or if you have an abnormal foot shape or structure, custom-made orthoses are available. These are specifically made to fit the shape of your feet. However, there is currently no evidence to suggest that custom-made orthoses are more effective than those bought off-the-shelf. An alternative to using orthoses is to have your heel strapped with sports strapping (zinc oxide) tape, which helps relieve pressure on your heel. Your GP or podiatrist can teach you how to apply the tape yourself. In some cases, night splints can also be useful. Most people sleep with their toes pointing down, which means tissue inside the heel is squeezed together. Night splints, which look like boots, are designed to keep your toes and feet pointing up while you are asleep. This will stretch both your Achilles tendon and your plantar fascia, which should help speed up your recovery time. Night splints are usually only available from specialist shops and online retailers. Again, your podiatrist should be able to recommend a supplier. If treatment hasn't helped relieve your painful symptoms, your GP may recommend corticosteroid injections. Corticosteroids are a type of medication that have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. They have to be used sparingly because overuse can cause serious side effects, such as weight gain and high blood pressure (hypertension). As a result, it is usually recommended that no more than three corticosteroid injections are given within a year in any part of the body. Before having a corticosteroid injection, a local anaesthetic may be used to numb your foot so you don't feel any pain.

Surgical Treatment

At most 95% of heel pain can be treated without surgery. A very low percentage of people really need to have surgery on the heel. It is a biomechanical problem and it?s very imperative that you not only get evaluated, but receive care immediately. Having heel pain is like having a problem with your eyes; as you would get glasses to correct your eyes, you should look into orthotics to correct your foot. Orthotics are sort of like glasses for the feet. They correct and realign the foot to put them into neutral or normal position to really prevent heel pain, and many other foot issues. Whether it be bunions, hammertoes, neuromas, or even ankle instability, a custom orthotic is something worth considering.

Where is a heel spur located?

Prevention

Pain In The Heel

You should always wear footwear that is appropriate for your environment and day-to-day activities. Wearing high heels when you go out in the evening is unlikely to be harmful. However, wearing them all week at work may damage your feet, particularly if your job involves a lot of walking or standing. Ideally, you should wear shoes with laces and a low to moderate heel that supports and cushions your arches and heels. Avoid wearing shoes with no heels. Do not walk barefoot on hard ground, particularly while on holiday. Many cases of heel pain occur when a person protects their feet for 50 weeks of the year and then suddenly walks barefoot while on holiday. Their feet are not accustomed to the extra pressure, which causes heel pain. If you do a physical activity, such as running or another form of exercise that places additional strain on your feet, you should replace your sports shoes regularly. Most experts recommend that sports shoes should be replaced after you have done about 500 miles in them. It is also a good idea to always stretch after exercising, and to make strength and flexibility training a part of your regular exercise routine.
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