If your first step in the morning often feels like it involves a rusty nail being inserted into your heel, you’re not alone. Heel pain resulting from plantar fasciitis is the most prevalent condition treated in podiatric clinics, and an additional 1 million Americans annually are seen by medical doctors for the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The plantar fascia is the ligament that runs from the heel bone across the entire bottom of the foot and connects at the base of the toes. Ligaments connect bone to bone, and don’t really constrict or contract, but can become thickened because of inflammation. Inflammation of the plantar fascia can cause strain when you walk, specifically heel pain that is especially bad for the first few steps after prolonged inactivity. It then typically loosens up once you’re up and about.
Each time we take a step forward, all of our body weight first rests on the heel of one foot. As our weight moves forward, the entire foot begins to bear the body’s weight, and the foot flattens and this places a great deal of pressure and strain on the plantar fascia. There is very little elasticity to the plantar fascia, so as it stretches only slightly; it pulls on its attachment to the heel. If the foot is properly aligned this pull causes no problems. However, if the foot is “pronated” (the foot rolls outward at the ankle, causing a break down of the inner side of the shoe), the arch falls excessively, and this causes an abnormal stretching of the relatively inflexible plantar fascia, which in turn pulls abnormally hard on the heel. The same pathology occurs with “supination” (the rolling inward of the foot, causing a break down of the outer side of the shoe). Supinated feet are relatively in flexible; usually have a high arch, and a short or tight plantar fascia. Thus as weight is transferred from the heel to the remainder of the foot, the tight plantar fascia hardly stretches at all, and pulls with great force on its attachment to the heel.
The symptoms of plantar fasciitis are pain on the bottom of the heel, pain in the arch of the foot, pain that is usually worse upon arising, pain that increases over a period of months. People with plantar fasciitis often describe the pain as worse when they get up in the morning or after they’ve been sitting for long periods of time. After a few minutes of walking the pain decreases, because walking stretches the fascia. For some people the pain subsides but returns after spending long periods of time on their feet.
Your doctor can usually diagnose plantar fasciitis just by talking to you and examining your feet. Rarely, tests are needed if the diagnosis is uncertain or to rule out other possible causes of heel pain. These can include X-rays of the heel or an ultrasound scan of the fascia. An ultrasound scan usually shows thickening and swelling of the fascia in plantar fasciitis.
Non Surgical Treatment
The key for the proper treatment of plantar fasciitis is determining what is causing the excessive stretching of the plantar fascia. When the cause is over-pronation (flat feet), an orthotic with rearfoot posting and longitudinal arch support is an effective device to reduce the over-pronation and allow the condition to heal. If you have usually high arches, which can also lead to plantar fasciitis, cushion the heel, absorb shock and wear proper footwear that will accommodate and comfort the foot. Other common treatments include stretching exercises, plantar fasciitis night splints, wearing shoes that have a cushioned heel to absorb shock, and elevating the heel with the use of a heel cradle or heel cup. Heel cradles and heel cups provide extra comfort, cushion the heel, and reduce the amount of shock and shear forces placed during everyday activities.
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.
Make sure you wear appropriate supportive shoes. Don’t over-train in sports. Make sure you warm up, cool down and undertake an exercise regime that helps maintain flexibility. Manage your weight, obesity is a factor in causing plantar fasciitis. Avoid walking and running on hard surfaces if you are prone to pain. You should follow the recognized management protocol – RICED-rest, ice, compression, elevation and diagnosis. Rest, keep off the injured ankle as much as possible. Ice, applied for 20 minutes at a time every hour as long as swelling persists. Compression, support the ankle and foot with a firmly (not tightly) wrapped elastic bandage. Elevation, keep foot above heart level to minimize bruising and swelling. Diagnosis, Consult a medical professional (such as a Podiatrist or doctor) especially if you are worried about the injury, or if the pain or swelling gets worse. If the pain or swelling has not gone down significantly within 48 hours, also seek treatment. An accurate diagnosis is essential for proper rehabilitation of moderate to severe injuries.