The function of the heel in walking is to absorb the shock of your foot striking the ground as it is put down and to start springing you forward on the next step. It contains a strong bone (the calcaneum). Under the bone are a large number of small pockets of fat in strong elastic linings, which absorb much of the shock (fat pads). The heel is attached to the front of the foot by a number of strong ligaments which run between the front part of the calcaneum and various other parts of the foot. The strongest ligament is the plantar fascia, which attaches the heel to the toes and helps to balance the various parts of the foot as you walk. It therefore takes a lot of stress as you walk. In some people the plantar fascia becomes painful and inflamed. This usually happens where it is attached to the heel bone, although sometimes it happens in the mid-part of the foot. This condition is called plantar fasciitis.
The most common cause of heel pain is a pull on the heel bone exerted by the muscles and ligaments (plantar fascia shown in illustration above) that support the arch of the foot. This is an overuse condition similar to bursitis of the shoulder or tennis elbow. Plantar fasciitis is typically very painful in the morning during the first few steps, after sitting and again at the end of the day.
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.
Your GP or podiatrist (a healthcare professional who specialises in foot care) may be able to diagnose the cause of your heel pain by asking about your symptoms and examining your heel and foot. You will usually only need further tests if you have additional symptoms that suggest the cause of your heel pain is not inflammation, such as numbness or a tingling sensation in your foot - this could be a sign of nerve damage in your feet and legs (peripheral neuropathy), your foot feels hot and you have a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above - these could be signs of a bone infection, you have stiffness and swelling in your heel - this could be a sign of arthritis. Possible further tests may include, blood tests, X-rays - where small doses of radiation are used to detect problems with your bones and tissues, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or ultrasound scan, which are more detailed scans.
Non Surgical Treatment
Curing posterior heel pain requires calming the inflammation, resting the foot and increasing calf flexibility. Ice therapy and anti-inflammatory medications can be used to reduce the inflammation. Stopping exercises that stress the calf and Achilles is important. This includes walking, running and the use of stair climbers and elliptical machines. Placing a heel lift in each shoe can reduce some of the excess strain on the back of the heel. Stretching exercises to increase calf flexibility are important in curing this problem and preventing its recurrence. Wearing running shoes also provides good foot support and helps with this condition. Sometimes a walking boot is used to immobilize the ankle and let the area completely rest. Physical therapy is sometimes ordered to help reduce the inflammation and pain and to help improve the flexibility of the calf muscles. Occasionally these measures fail to relieve the pain and surgery may be needed. The surgical procedure involves removing bone spurs and repairing any damage to the tendon.
Although most patients with plantar fasciitis respond to non-surgical treatment, a small percentage of patients may require surgery. If, after several months of non-surgical treatment, you continue to have heel pain, surgery will be considered. Your foot and ankle surgeon will discuss the surgical options with you and determine which approach would be most beneficial for you. No matter what kind of treatment you undergo for plantar fasciitis, the underlying causes that led to this condition may remain. Therefore, you will need to continue with preventive measures. Wearing supportive shoes, stretching, and using custom orthotic devices are the mainstay of long-term treatment for plantar fasciitis.
Maintaining flexible and strong muscles in your calves, ankles, and feet can help prevent some types of heel pain. Always stretch and warm-up before exercising. Wear comfortable, properly fitting shoes with good arch support and cushioning. Make sure there is enough room for your toes.