Plantar fasciitis, also called “heel pain syndrome,” affects approximately 2 million people in the United States each year. Plantar fasciitis can come on gradually as the result of a degenerative process or sudden foot trauma. It can appear in one heel or both. It is generally worse on taking the first few steps in the morning or after prolonged sitting or non-weight-bearing movement. Symptoms can be aggravated by activity and prolonged weight bearing. Obesity, too, is hard on the feet-it can cause plantar pain or it can make that pain worse. The plantar fascia connects the calcaneal tubercle to the forefoot with five slips directed to each toe respectively. Other conditions, such as calcaneal fat pad atrophy, calcaneal stress fracture, nerve entrapment, and rheumatoid arthritis may also cause foot pain. These conditions may be found in combination with plantar fasciitis, or separate from it. A blood test can help pinpoint the cause(s).
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 classic sign of plantar fasciitis is that the worst pain occurs with the first few steps in the morning, but not every patient will have this symptom. Patients often notice pain at the beginning of activity that lessens or resolves as they warm up. The pain may also occur with prolonged standing and is sometimes accompanied by stiffness. In more severe cases, the pain will also worsen toward the end of the day.
If you see a doctor for heel pain, he or she will first ask questions about where you feel the pain. If plantar fasciitis is suspected, the doctor will ask about what activities you’ve been doing that might be putting you at risk. The doctor will also examine your foot by pressing on it or asking you to flex it to see if that makes the pain worse. If something else might be causing the pain, like a heel spur or a bone fracture, the doctor may order an X-ray to take a look at the bones of your feet. In rare cases, if heel pain doesn’t respond to regular treatments, the doctor also might order an MRI scan of your foot. The good news about plantar fasciitis is that it usually goes away after a few months if you do a few simple things like stretching exercises and cutting back on activities that might have caused the problem. Taking over-the-counter medicines can help with pain. It’s rare that people need surgery for plantar fasciitis. Doctors only do surgery as a last resort if nothing else eases the pain.
Non Surgical Treatment
Plantar fasciitis is usually controlled with conservative treatment. Following control of the pain and inflammation an orthotic (a custom made shoe insert) will be used to stabilize your foot and prevent a recurrence. Over 98% of the time heel spurs and plantar fasciitis can be controlled by this treatment and surgery can be avoided. The orthotic prevents excess pronation and prevents lengthening of the plantar fascia and continued tearing of the fascia. Usually a slight heel lift and a firm shank in the shoe will also help to reduce the severity of this problem. The office visit will be used for careful examination and review to distinguish plantar fasciitis and plantar heel pain syndrome from other problems, many of which are outlined below. It is important to distinguish between a stress reaction of the calcaneus and plantar fasciitis. A feature of many calcaneal stress fractures is pain on lateral and medial compression of the calcaneus.
In very rare cases plantar fascia surgery is suggested, as a last resort. In this case the surgeon makes an incision into the ligament, partially cutting the plantar fascia to release it. If a heel spur is present, the surgeon will remove it. Plantar Fasciitis surgery should always be considered the last resort when all the conventional treatment methods have failed to succeed. Endoscopic plantar fasciotomy (EPF) is a form of surgery whereby two incisions are made around the heel and the ligament is being detached from the heel bone allowing the new ligament to develop in the same place. In some cases the surgeon may decide to remove the heel spur itself, if present. Just like any type of surgery, Plantar Fascia surgery comes with certain risks and side effects. For example, the arch of the foot may drop and become weak. Wearing an arch support after surgery is therefore recommended. Heel spur surgeries may also do some damage to veins and arteries of your foot that allow blood supply in the area. This will increase the time of recovery.
Preventing plantar fasciitis is crucial. There are many choices to help prevent the occurrence of this condition, and keep it from returning. One of the most important is maintaining a healthy weight in order to reduce tension on the plantar fascia. In addition, shoes are very important, and should fit well and provide ample cushioning and support throughout the heel, arch, and ball of the foot so that weight is distributed evenly throughout the foot. Try to avoid walking barefoot on hard surfaces and replace old shoes before they wear out, especially shoes that you run or exercise in. When exercising, start off slow and ease into new routines to prevent sudden or excessive stress on tissue. Lastly, keep your calf muscles and the tissue of your feet stretched. Greater flexibility in the tissue makes them less susceptible to damage.