Plantar fasciitis is a condition that causes heel and arch pain through inflammation on the bottom of the foot. The part that’s inflamed (swollen) is actually the plantar fascia, which is the connective tissue or ligament that stretches from the base of the toes, across the arch of the foot, and inserts into the heel bone. This painful condition can interfere with your daily activity and severely decrease your quality of life.
When the foot moves, the plantar fascia stretches and contracts. Plantar fasciitis is caused by the repetitive overstretching of the plantar fascia. If the tension on the plantar fascia is too great, this overstretching causes small tears in the plantar fascia. This in turn causes the plantar fascia to become inflamed and painful. Factors that contribute to the development of plantar fasciitis include having very high arches or flat feet, gender, while anyone can develop plantar fasciitis, it tends to occur more commonly in women, exercises such as running, walking and dancing, particularly if the calf muscles are tight. Activities or occupations that involve walking or standing for long periods of time, particularly on hard surfaces, wearing high heeled shoes or shoes that do not offer adequate arch support and cushioning, being overweight, additional weight increases the tension on the plantar fascia, poor biomechanics, extra tension is placed on the plantar fascia if weight is not spread evenly when standing, walking or running. Some cases of plantar fasciitis may be linked to underlying diseases that cause arthritis, such as ankylosing spondylitis.
The symptoms of plantar fasciitis include pain in the bottom of your foot, especially at the front or centre of the heel bone, pain that is worse when first rising in the morning (called “first-step pain”), when first standing up after any long period of sitting, or after increased levels of activity especially in non-supportive shoes. Seek medical advice about plantar fasciitis if you have heel pain or pain in the bottom of your foot, especially when you get up in the morning, that does not respond to treatment or if there is redness or bruising in the heel.
Most cases of plantar fasciitis are diagnosed by a health care provider who listens carefully to your description of symptoms. During an examination of your feet, your health care provider will have to press on the bottom of your feet, the area most likely to be painful in plantar fasciitis. Because the pain of plantar fasciitis has unique characteristics, pain upon rising, improvement after walking for several minutes, pain produced by pressure applied in a specific location on your foot but not with pressure in other areas, your health care provider will probably feel comfortable making the diagnosis based on your symptoms and a physical examination. Your health care provider may suggest that you have an X-ray of your foot to verify that there is no stress fracture causing your pain.
Non Surgical Treatment
In general, we start by correcting training errors. This usually requires relative rest, the use of ice after activities, and an evaluation of the patient’s shoes and activities. Next, we try correction of biomechanical factors with a stretching and strengthening program. If the patient still has no improvement, we consider night splints and orthotics. Finally, all other treatment options are considered. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications are considered throughout the treatment course, although we explain to the patient that this medicine is being used primarily for pain control and not to treat the underlying problem.
The most dramatic therapy, used only in cases where pain is very severe, is surgery. The plantar fascia can be partially detached from the heel bone, but the arch of the foot is weakened and full function may be lost. Another surgery involves lengthening the calf muscle, a process called gastrocnemius recession. If you ignore the condition, you can develop chronic heel pain. This can change the way you walk and cause injury to your legs, knees, hips and back. Steroid injections and some other treatments can weaken the plantar fascia ligament and cause potential rupture of the ligament. Surgery carries the risks of bleeding, infection, and reactions to anesthesia. Plantar fascia detachment can also cause changes in your foot and nerve damage. Gastrocnemius resection can also cause nerve damage.
Exercises designed to stretch both your calf muscles and your plantar fascia (the band of tissue that runs under the sole of your foot) should help relieve pain and improve flexibility in the affected foot. A number of stretching exercises are described below. It’s usually recommended that you do the exercises on both legs, even if only one of your heels is affected by pain. This will improve your balance and stability, and help relieve heel pain. Towel stretches. Keep a long towel beside your bed. Before you get out of bed in the morning, loop the towel around your foot and use it to pull your toes towards your body, while keeping your knee straight. Repeat three times on each foot. Wall stretches. Place both hands on a wall at shoulder height, with one of your feet in front of the other. The front foot should be about 30cm (12 inches) away from the wall. With your front knee bent and your back leg straight, lean towards the wall until you feel a tightening in the calf muscles of your back leg. Then relax. Repeat this exercise 10 times before switching legs and repeating the cycle. You should practise wall stretches twice a day. Stair stretches. Stand on a step of your stairs facing upstairs, using your banister for support. Your feet should be slightly apart, with your heels hanging off the back of the step. Lower your heels until you feel a tightening in your calves. Hold this position for about 40 seconds, before raising your heels back to the starting position. Repeat this procedure six times, at least twice a day. Chair stretches. Sit on a chair, with your knees bent at right angles. Turn your feet sideways so your heels are touching and your toes are pointing in opposite directions. Lift the toes of the affected foot upwards, while keeping the heel firmly on the floor. You should feel your calf muscles and Achilles tendon (the band of tissue that connects your heel bone to your calf muscle) tighten. Hold this position for several seconds and then relax. Repeat this procedure 10 times, five to six times a day. Dynamic stretches. While seated, roll the arch of your foot (the curved bottom part of the foot between your toes and heel) over a round object, such as a rolling pin, tennis ball or drinks can. Some people find that using a chilled can from their fridge has the added benefit of helping to relieve pain. Move your foot and ankle in all directions over the object for several minutes. Repeat the exercise twice a day.