Understanding Heel Ache

Overview

Heel Pain

There are two categories of Heel Pain. pain on the bottom (plantar) and pain on the back of the heel bone (calcaneus). The most common cause pain on the bottom of the heel is plantar fasciitis or better known as heel spur syndrome. Another common cause is nerve entrapment (~70% of patients have both plantar fasciitis and nerve entrapment) and less commonly, stress fracture, arthritis, tendonitis, a cyst or a combination of these. Pain on the back of the heel most often involves the insertion of the Achilles tendon into the bone. Due to the multi-factorial nature of heel pain, the earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the outcome.

Causes

some heel pain can be caused by rheumatological diseases, and these pains can do a real good impersonation of plantar fasciitis symptoms. Seronegative Arthropathies such as Psoriatic Arthritis, Reactive Arthritis and Ankylosing Spondylisis are the most common types to cause heel pain by producing an inflammatory reaction where the fascia attaches to the heel. This is called an enthesitis. If you have a history of Psoriasis or a family history of other arthritic conditions listed above we recommend you see a clinician about your heel pain to confirm the diagnosis. Another occasional cause of heel pain is loss of the cushioning fat pad of the heel, which can result in a bruised heel bone (calcaneus). If you can easily feel your heel bone through your skin on the bottom of your foot you may well have poor fatty tissue on your heel. Pressing on the centre of your heel should feel like pushing into firm rubber, and your skin should not move easily. If you can pinch the skin under your heel and feel a very hard lump when you press the bottom of your heel then it is likely you have a heel fat pad problem. One simple final test is to walk on a hard floor. If you feel the pain only when your heel hits the ground a fat pad problem is most likely. If the pain mainly occurs as you lift the heel off the ground it is more likely to be plantar fasciitis.

Symptoms

See your doctor as soon as possible if you experience severe pain accompanied by swelling near your heel. There is numbness or tingling in the heel, as well as pain and fever. There is pain in your heel as well as fever. You are unable to walk normally. You cannot bend your foot downwards. You cannot stand with the backs of the feet raised (you cannot rise onto your toes). You should arrange to see a doctor if the heel pain has persisted for more than one week. There is still heel pain when you are not standing or walking.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will listen to your complaints about your heel and examine you to see what is causing the pain, and whether anything else has started it off. If the cause of your pain seems obvious, your doctor may be happy to start treatment straight away. However, some tests may be helpful in ruling out other problems. Blood tests may be done for arthritis. An Xray will show any arthritis in the ankle or subtalar joint, as well as any fracture or cyst in the calcaneum. (It will also show a spur if you have one, but as we know this is not the cause of the pain.) Occasionally a scan may be used to help spot arthritis or a stress fracture.

Non Surgical Treatment

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 and strapping. Placing pads in the shoe softens the impact of walking. Strapping helps 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.

Surgical Treatment

If treatment hasn’t worked and you still have painful symptoms after a year, your GP may refer you to either an orthopaedic surgeon, a surgeon who specialises in surgery that involves bones, muscles and joints or a podiatric surgeon, a podiatrist who specialises in foot surgery. Surgery is sometimes recommended for professional athletes and other sportspeople whose heel pain is adversely affecting their career. Plantar release surgery is the most widely used type of surgery for heel pain. The surgeon will cut the fascia to release it from your heel bone and reduce the tension in your plantar fascia. This should reduce any inflammation and relieve your painful symptoms. Surgery can be performed either as open surgery, where the section of the plantar fascia is released by making a cut into your heel or endoscopic or minimal incision surgery – where a smaller incision is made and special instruments are inserted through the incision to gain access to the plantar fascia. Endoscopic or minimal incision surgery has a quicker recovery time, so you will be able to walk normally much sooner (almost immediately), compared with two to three weeks for open surgery. A disadvantage of endoscopic surgery is that it requires both a specially trained surgical team and specialised equipment, so you may have to wait longer for treatment than if you were to choose open surgery. Endoscopic surgery also carries a higher risk of damaging nearby nerves, which could result in symptoms such as numbness, tingling or some loss of movement in your foot. As with all surgery, plantar release carries the risk of causing complications such as infection, nerve damage and a worsening of your symptoms after surgery (although this is rare). You should discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both techniques with your surgical team.

Prevention

Feet Pain

It is not always possible to prevent heel pain, but there are measures you can take to help avoid further episodes. Being overweight can place excess pressure and strain on your feet, particularly on your heels. This increases the risk of damaging your feet and heels. If you are overweight, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight by combining regular exercise with a healthy, balanced diet can be beneficial for your feet. You can calculate your body mass index (BMI) to find out whether you are a healthy weight for your height and build. To work out your BMI, divide your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared. A BMI of less than 18.5 means that you are underweight, 18.5-24.9 means that your weight is healthy, 25-29 means that you are overweight, 30-40 means that you are obese, over 40 means that you are morbidly obese. You can also use the BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your BMI.

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