What Is It?
Heel pain is a common symptom that has many possible causes. Although heel pain sometimes is caused by a systemic (total body) illness, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout, it usually is a local condition that affects only the foot. The most common local causes of heel pain include:
- Plantar fasciitis — Plantar fasciitis is a painful inflammation of the plantar fascia, a fibrous band of tissue on the sole of the foot that helps to support the arch. Plantar fasciitis occurs when the plantar fascia is overloaded or overstretched. This produces small tears in the fibers of the fascia, especially where the fascia meets the heel bone. Plantar fasciitis tends to occur in the following groups of people: people with diabetes, obese people, pregnant women, runners, volleyball players, tennis players and people who participate in step aerobics or stair climbing. You also can trigger plantar fasciitis by pushing a large appliance or piece of furniture or by wearing worn out or poorly constructed shoes. In athletes, plantar fasciitis may follow a period of intense training, especially in runners who suddenly push themselves to run longer distances. People with flat feet have a higher risk of developing plantar fasciitis.
- Heel spur — A heel spur is an abnormal growth of bone at the area where the plantar fascia attaches to the heel bone. It is caused by long-term strain on the plantar fascia and muscles of the foot, especially in obese people, runners or joggers. As in plantar fasciitis, shoes that are worn out, poorly fitting or poorly constructed can aggravate the problem. Heel spurs may not be the cause of heel pain even when seen on an X-ray. They may develop as a result of plantar fasciitis.
- Calcaneal apophysitis — In this condition, the center of bone growth (apophysis) in the heel bone (calcaneus) becomes irritated as a result of a new shoe or an increase in athletic activity. This pain occurs in the back of the heel, not the bottom. Calcaneal apophysitis is a fairly common cause of heel pain in active, growing children between the ages of 8 and 14. Although almost any boy or girl can be affected, children who participate in sports that require a lot of jumping have the highest risk of developing this condition.
- Bursitis — Bursitis means inflammation of a bursa, a sac that lines many joints and allows tendons and muscles to move easily when the joint is moving. In the heel, bursitis may cause pain at the underside of the heel or at the back of the heel. In some cases, heel bursitis is related to structural abnormalities of the foot that produce an abnormal gait. In other cases, wearing shoes with poorly cushioned heels can trigger it.
- “Pump bump” — This condition, medically known as posterior calcaneal exostosis, is an abnormal bony growth at the back of the heel. It is especially common in young women, in whom it is often related to long-term bursitis caused by pressure from pump shoes.
- Local bruises — Like other parts of the foot, the heel can be bumped and bruised accidentally. Typically, this happens as a “stone bruise,” an impact injury caused by stepping on a sharp object while walking barefoot.
- Achilles tendonitis — In most cases, Achilles tendonitis (inflammation of the Achilles tendon) is triggered by overuse, especially by excessive jumping during sports. However, it also can be related to poorly fitting shoes if the upper back portion of a shoe digs into the Achilles tendon above the heel. Less often, it is caused by an inflammatory illness, such as ankylosing spondylitis, Reiter’s syndrome, gout or rheumatoid arthritis.
- Trapped nerve — Compression of a small nerve (a branch of the lateral plantar nerve) can cause pain, numbness or tingling in the heel area. In many cases, this nerve compression is related to a sprain, fracture or varicose (swollen) vein near the heel.
The heel can be painful in many different ways, depending on the cause:
- Plantar fasciitis — Plantar fasciitis commonly causes intense heel pain along the bottom of the foot during the first few steps after getting out of bed in the morning. This heel pain often subsides once you’ve begun to walk around, but it may return in the late afternoon or evening.
- Heel spur — Although X-ray evidence suggests that about 10 percent of the general population has heels spurs, many of these people have no symptoms. In others, heel spurs are associated with pain and tenderness on the undersurface of the heel that progressively worsen over several months.
- Calcaneal apophysitis — In a child, this condition causes pain and tenderness at the lower back portion and undersurface of the heel. The affected heel is often sore to the touch but not obviously swollen.
- Bursitis — Bursitis involving the heel causes pain in the middle of the undersurface of the heel that worsens with prolonged standing, pain at the back of the heel that worsens if you bend your foot up or down.
- Pump bump — This condition causes a painful enlargement at the back of the heel, especially when wearing shoes that press against the back of the heel.
- Local bruises — Heel bruises, like bruises elsewhere in the body, may cause pain, mild swelling, soreness and a black-and-blue discoloration of the skin.
- Achilles tendonitis — This condition causes pain at the back of the heel where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel. The pain typically becomes worse if you exercise or play sports, and it often is followed by soreness, stiffness and mild swelling.
- Trapped nerve — A trapped nerve can cause pain, numbness or tingling almost anywhere at the back, inside or undersurface of the heel. In addition, there are often other symptoms — such as swelling or discoloration — if the trapped nerve was caused by a sprain, fracture or other injury.
After you have described your foot symptoms, your doctor will want to know more specific details about your pain, your medical and orthopedic history and lifestyle, including:
- Whether your pain is worse at specific times of the day or after specific activities
- Any recent injury to the area
- Your medical and orthopedic history, especially any history of diabetes, arthritis or previous injury to your foot or leg
- Your age and occupation
- Your recreational activities, sports and exercise program
- The type of shoes you usually wear, how well they fit, and how frequently you buy a new pair
Your doctor will examine you, including:
- An evaluation of your gait — While you are barefoot, your doctor will ask you to stand still and to walk in order to evaluate the mechanics of your foot.
- An examination of your feet — Your doctor may compare both your feet for any differences between them. Then your doctor may examine your painful foot for signs of tenderness, swelling, discoloration, muscle weakness and decreased range of motion.
- A neurological examination — The nerves and muscles may be evaluated by checking strength, sensation and reflexes.
In addition to examining you, your health-care provider may want to examine your shoes. Signs of excessive wear in certain parts of the shoe can provide valuable clues to problems in the way you walk and poor bone alignment. Depending on the results of your physical examination, foot X-rays or other diagnostic tests may be recommended.
How long heel pain lasts depends on the cause. For example, heel pain that is related to obesity should improve gradually as you lose weight.
If your heel pain is related to a specific sport or exercise regimen, a period of rest may bring relief. Once your heel is pain-free, you may need to modify your training program to prevent your pain from returning. Most heel pain goes away in a short period of time either on its own or after treatment.
You can help to prevent heel pain by maintaining a healthy weight, by warming up before participating in sports and by wearing shoes that support the arch and cushion the heel. If you are prone to episodes of plantar fasciitis, exercises that stretch the Achilles tendon (heel cord) and plantar fascia may help to prevent the area from being injured again. You also can massage the sole of your foot with ice after stressful athletic activities. Sometimes, the only intervention needed is a brief period of rest and getting new walking or running shoes.
Treatment of heel pain depends on its cause:
- Plantar fasciitis — Most doctors recommend a six- to eight-week program of conservative treatment, including a temporary rest from sports that trigger the foot problem, stretching exercises, ice massage to the sole of the foot, footwear modifications, taping of the sole of the injured foot, and acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and others) for pain. If this conservative treatment doesn’t help, your doctor may recommend that you wear a night splint or a short leg cast, or he or she may inject corticosteroid medication into the painful area. Surgery is rarely necessary and is not always successful.
- Heel spur — Conservative treatment includes the use of shoe supports (either a heel raise or a donut-shaped heel cushion) and a limited number of local corticosteroid injections (usually up to three per year). As in plantar fasciitis, surgery is a last resort.
- Calcaneal apophysitis — This condition usually goes away on its own. In the meantime, conservative treatment includes rest and the use of heel pads and heel cushions.
- Bursitis — Treatment is similar to the treatment of heel spurs. Changing the type of footwear may be essential.
- Pump bump — Treatment is similar to the treatment of bursitis and heel spurs. In rare cases, the bony growth at the heel may need to be removed surgically.
- Local bruises — Heel bruises can be treated by applying an ice pack for the first few minutes after injury.
- Achilles tendonitis — This condition is treated conservatively with rest, NSAIDs and physical therapy.
- Trapped nerve — If a sprain, fracture or other injury has caused the trapped nerve, this underlying problem must be treated first. In rare cases, surgical release of the trapped nerve may be necessary.
When To Call A Professional
Make an appointment to see your health-care provider if you have significant heel pain that does not improve within a few days.
Although the prognosis depends on the specific cause of the heel pain, most people respond to conservative, nonsurgical therapy. For example, at least 90 percent of people with plantar fasciitis heal within six to eight weeks of conservative therapy, or conservative therapy followed by six to eight weeks of night splints. Less than 5 percent of people with plantar fasciitis require surgery.
Heel pain may return if you return too soon to your previous level of exercise or sports participation.
by Potos A. Aagen, M.D.
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.