As bipedal creatures, for more than 200,000 years (give or take) we’ve depended on our two feet to take us places—our first steps and first dance, across the finish line of a race, or walking a loved one down the aisle.
But with lots of use, there could come some pain—especially in your heel. While some of us may believe in the mantra, “no pain, no gain,” persistent pain isn’t something you should ignore.
“As humans who walk upright, the calf muscle and Achilles tendon get stronger and tighter naturally over time, especially if they are not stretched on a regular basis,” said Justin Roberts, MD, a foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon with TOCA at Banner Health in Arizona. “This continuous stress placed on the heel and surrounding joints can often lead to chronic heel pain.”
Although heel pain is a very common complaint Dr. Roberts hears from his patients, diagnosis isn’t cut and dry as there can be many possible causes. Our feet are very complex, so the entire foot and ankle—including bones, soft tissue, nerves and skin—will need to be evaluated to find the root cause for pain.
To help us better understand the common causes of heel pain and available treatment options, Dr. Roberts walks us through them.
Common Causes of Heel Pain
The most common causes of heel pain are plantar fasciitis and irritation of the Achilles tendon where it attaches on the back of the heel bone, known as insertional Achilles tendinosis.
Dr. Roberts added, “Other relatively common causes are stress fractures of the heel bone, irritation or entrapment of the nerves that pass near the heel bone, known as tarsal tunnel syndrome, and degeneration of the special fat cushion on the bottom of the heel, known as fat pad atrophy.”
Other common factors that can increase your risk of developing heel pain include:
- A dramatic increase in exercise or activity: Starting a new exercise routine too quickly can put stress on your body.
- Obesity: Carrying additional weight can put undue stress on your joints.
- Prolonged Standing: Prolonged standing can cause increased stress on the tissue.
- Improper footwear: Although you may love those high heels or can’t part with your flip-flops, they could be contributing to your heel and foot pain.
How to heal your heel? Same with diagnosis, it can be complicated. Your doctor will be able to provide you with treatment options that best suit the cause of your heel pain.
However, some simple home treatments include:
- Modify or stop activities that worsen pain.
- Start a calf and Achilles stretching regimen.
- Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory on a regular basis for 1-2 weeks to help decrease pain and inflammation.
Stretch, stretch and stretch some more.
“Stretching on a regular basis is probably the most important aspect of preventing heel pain,” Dr. Roberts said.
Depending on the source of the pain, there may be other preventative strategies your doctor may give you. But, in general, Dr. Roberts shared some additional steps you can take to avoid pain in your heel:
- Maintain a healthy weight or lose weight to reduce stress on the heel and arch.
- Wear supportive, properly fitted shoes that offer adequate support and cushion.
- Start slow and build up in a progressive manner when starting a new exercise routine to decrease the chances of a stress injury by doing too much too soon.
- Cross train by mixing up low impact exercise activity to decrease wear and tear on your feet and heels.
When to see a specialist
Patients should seek medical treatment for pain that does not decrease after about four weeks of activity modification and stretching.
“Severe pain at night or pain that doesn’t go away after getting off your feet should be evaluated,” Dr. Roberts said. “Bilateral heel pain, especially in the setting of fevers, chills, fatigue, weight loss and other joint pain could be a sign of a more systemic condition that needs to be evaluated.”
If heel pain has you down for the count and home treatments are not helping, schedule an appointment with a Banner Health expert. Our orthopedic surgeons provide services for everyone and can help get you back on your feet. Visit bannerhealth.com to learn more.