Heel pain can be a frustrating and painful condition, especially as we all need to walk to get around. This is only compounded if your job calls for a lot of standing. But what are the causes of heel pain – and what can you do about it?
Heel pain is most typically caused by a condition known as plantar fasciitis, or by heel spurs – though there are additional causes of heel pain, as well. First, let’s take a look at the…
Symptoms of Heel Pain
Heel pain can take form in several ways. You may feel:
- Pain under your heel
- Pain in the arch of your foot
- Swelling underneath your heel
- Pain that’s worse in the mornings, or after long periods of sitting1
Heel pain tends to start gradually, and is not a “sudden” injury.
The Main Causes of Heel Pain
The most likely causes of heel pain can usually be traced to one of these conditions:
Plantar fasciitis is by far the most common culprit behind heel pain. It’s caused by inflammation in the plantar fascia ligament, a fibrous tissue that runs underneath your foot – from heel to toe. This ligament’s function is to support your arch, by acting as a kind of shock absorber.2
Why does this inflammation happen? There are a number of reasons that you may get plantar fasciitis, but they all relate to placing too much pressure on these sensitive ligaments:
- It could be that you were born with a faulty foot structure, like flat feet or high arches.
- Perhaps you have naturally tight achilles tendons.
- Are you regularly exercising in unsupportive footwear on hard surfaces?
- Do you work long hours on your feet in poor-fitting shoes.
- You may be overweight or pregnant and putting undue pressure on your arches.3
Plantar fasciitis can actually cause heel spurs to form. When plantar fasciitis continues for a long period of time, calcium deposits, known as heel spurs, may form on your heel bones. The good news is that these spurs aren’t necessarily permanent, and they can be reversed with a good treatment plan.4
Just like any bone, you can fracture your heel bone. This usually takes significant trauma – like falling from a substantial height, or a car accident. However, it’s possible to fracture your heel bone from repetitive stress. This is known as a calcaneus stress fracture and is most commonly seen in soldiers and runners.5
Tendinopathy can appear very similar to plantar fasciitis, but there is one main difference – where the pain is felt. Pain can come from several areas of your foot – but it won’t come from that plantar fascia ligament under your foot.
The most common area on the foot for tendinopathy is the Achilles tendon, which connects your calf to your heel. Tendinopathy tends to get worse during exercise, while plantar fasciitis tends to get better during exercise (due to the warming up of the ligament).6,7 Achilles tendinopathy is similarly caused by bad footwear and overuse.8
How To Ease Heel Pain
You can help ease the discomfort of plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, or Achilles tendinopathy at home by:
Resting: Rest is an essential part of the healing process, so cut down on physical activities and stay off your heels as much as possible.
Stretching: Exercises that stretch out the calf muscle and plantar fascia may also help with both pain and recovery. Here’s how:
Try flexing your foot up and down 10 times before standing. Place a towel under your foot, and pull gently to stretch the bottom of your foot out. Or, with your heel on the floor, pull your big toe up and back for around 15 seconds, three times per session.9
Ice: Using an ice pack can be of great assistance in reducing inflammation in your heel. Place an ice pack on the floor and rest your heel on it for 10 minutes, four times a day. Always use a cloth between the ice and the skin to prevent ice burn.10
Medications: Certain medications may help to reduce pain and inflammation for short periods of time, though research suggests that they’re not adequate for long-term success.11
Shoes: Try to avoid going barefoot — this will put unnecessary stress on your heel.
Consulting a physical therapist is always a great idea for obtaining the best recovery information possible. He or she can:
- Confirm the causes of your heel pain.
- Recommend arch support orthotics, which are a proven element in heel pain recovery.12
- Guide you through a system of physical exercises that will provide better long-term outcomes for your injury. Research shows that isometric exercises (where muscles act against each other), combined with specific functional strengthening (where your muscles work together), are proving highly successful for both plantar fasciitis and achilles tendinopathy.13
Time To “Heel”
As with any physical trauma, heel pain needs to be respected for what it is – an actual injury that needs time to repair. It’s easy to determine that you’ve just strained a small muscle and that it will “get better” on its own. But without taking the time to recover, you could be faced with a far greater injury than is necessary. And that means more time off your feet!
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