The American College of Sports and Medicine (1) estimates that the average adult takes between 5,000 and 10,000 steps per day. The brunt of this activity is borne by the bones, muscles and ligaments of the foot. Healthy feet have strong, wonderfully flexible ligaments which are designed to support standing, walking and running. Plantar Fasciitis (pronounced “plantar fash-ee-eye-tis”) is defined as inflammation of, or damage to, one of the most important ligaments in the foot – the plantar fascia. The plantar fascia ligament is located along the sole of your foot. It is made up of fibrous tissue that stretches outward from the heel bone, like a strong piece of elastic, and then branches out across the arch and through the ball area of the foot toward the toes.
Plantar fasciitis most commonly occurs due to repetitive or prolonged activities placing strain on the plantar fascia. It is often seen in runners, or dancers and gymnasts who perform regular activities involving end of range foot and ankle movements. It may also occur in patients who walk excessively, especially up hills or on uneven surfaces. Older patients who spend a lot of time on their feet may also develop the condition. Plantar fasciitis frequently occurs in association with calf muscle tightness, inappropriate footwear, or biomechanical abnormalities, such as excessive pronation (flat feet) or supination (high arches). Occasionally the condition may occur suddenly due to a high force going through the plantar fascia beyond what it can withstand. This may be due to activities such as a sudden acceleration or a forceful jump.
Most patients with plantar fasciitis describe a sharp or stabbing pain on the bottom of the heel that is most severe when they first get up in the morning or after a period of resting. Some may feel like the heel is bruised while others may describe tightness or even a pulling sensation on the heel or arch.
During the physical exam, your doctor checks for points of tenderness in your foot. The location of your pain can help determine its cause. Usually no tests are necessary. The diagnosis is made based on the history and physical examination. Occasionally your doctor may suggest an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to make sure your pain isn’t being caused by another problem, such as a stress fracture or a pinched nerve. Sometimes an X-ray shows a spur of bone projecting forward from the heel bone. In the past, these bone spurs were often blamed for heel pain and removed surgically. But many people who have bone spurs on their heels have no heel pain.
Non Surgical Treatment
Your GP or podiatrist may advise you to change your footwear. You should avoid wearing flat-soled shoes, because they will not provide your heel with support and could make your heel pain worse. Ideally, you should wear shoes that cushion your heels and provide a good level of support to the arches of your feet. For women wearing high heels, and for men wearing heeled boots or brogues, can provide short- to medium-term pain relief, as they help reduce pressure on the heels. However, these types of shoes may not be suitable in the long term, because they can lead to further episodes of heel pain. Your GP or podiatrist can advise on footwear. Orthoses are insoles that fit inside your shoe to support your foot and help your heel recover. You can buy orthoses off-the-shelf from sports shops and larger pharmacies. Alternatively, your podiatrist should be able to recommend a supplier. If your pain does not respond to treatment and keeps recurring, or if you have an abnormal foot shape or structure, custom-made orthoses are available. These are specifically made to fit the shape of your feet. However, there is currently no evidence to suggest that custom-made orthoses are more effective than those bought off-the-shelf. An alternative to using orthoses is to have your heel strapped with sports strapping (zinc oxide) tape, which helps relieve pressure on your heel. Your GP or podiatrist can teach you how to apply the tape yourself. In some cases, night splints can also be useful. Most people sleep with their toes pointing down, which means tissue inside the heel is squeezed together. Night splints, which look like boots, are designed to keep your toes and feet pointing up while you are asleep. This will stretch both your Achilles tendon and your plantar fascia, which should help speed up your recovery time. Night splints are usually only available from specialist shops and online retailers. Again, your podiatrist should be able to recommend a supplier. If treatment hasn’t helped relieve your painful symptoms, your GP may recommend corticosteroid injections. Corticosteroids are a type of medication that have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. They have to be used sparingly because overuse can cause serious side effects, such as weight gain and high blood pressure (hypertension). As a result, it is usually recommended that no more than three corticosteroid injections are given within a year in any part of the body. Before having a corticosteroid injection, a local anaesthetic may be used to numb your foot so you don’t feel any pain.
Surgery is rarely used in the treatment of plantar fasciitis. However it may be recommended when conservative treatment has been tried for several months but does not bring adequate relief of symptoms. Surgery usually involves the partial release of the plantar fascia from the heel bone. In approximately 75% of cases symptoms are fully resolved within six months. In a small percentage of cases, symptoms may take up to 12 months to fully resolve.