The most common cause of heel pain and heel spurs is a condition called Plantar Fasciitis (sometimes misspelled Planter Fascitis). This is Latin for inflammation of the Plantar Fascia. The Plantar Fascia is the broad band of fibrous tissue that runs under the foot and that forms your arch. Because of a number of different factors the plantar fascia are being overly stretched and this continuous pulling results in inflammation and pain at the heel, at the point where the ligaments insert into the heel bone.
Over-pronation of the feet (fallen arches + rolling inward of the feet and ankles), tight calf muscles, as well as ageing and being overweight are the main causes for the plantar fascia being overly stretched. There are many ways to treat Plantar Fasciitis, including cortisone injections and surgery. However, in most cases heel pain relief can be achieved through self-help by following a number of easy, simple steps, most of which are aimed at reducing the pulling of the plantar fascia.
1. Rest or reduce activity
When you have heel pain avoid any activity that can further aggravate the problem. This includes walking for long distances, walking up or down stairs, running, sports etc. If you want to keep fit swimming is the safest activity, until your heel pain has been treated properly. Or you can ride a bike or a stationary exercise bike. Basically, try to be as little on your feet as possible, allowing the plantar fascia to heal itself.
2. Cold & Hot therapy
Use an ice pack and apply it onto the sore heel for 5-10 mins at a time, 3 to 4 times per day. The ice will reduce the inflammation in the heel area. To help reduce any chronic inflammation, you can try alternating between ice and heat. Place an ice pack on the heel for 5 minutes and then switch to a hot pack (or hot water foot bath) for another 5 minutes. Do this for about 20-30 minutes per day and you'll notice some considerable heel pain relief.
3. Roll a ball under the foot
Many people with Plantar Fasciitis experience a sharp heel pain in the morning, when taking the first steps after getting out of bed. This pain comes from the tightening of the plantar fascia that occurs during sleep. Stretching and massaging the plantar fascia before standing up will help reduce heel pain for the rest of your day! Massaging the plantar fascia can be done simply by rolling a tennisball (or rolling pin) under the foot, all the way from the heel to the toes. You may do this sitting down, applying a fair amount of pressure onto the arch, or even standing up as long this causes not too much discomfort. Keep rolling the ball or pin under the foot for about 5 minutes.
4. Stretch your feet with a towel
Stretching the plantar fascia is your next Plantar Fasciitis exercise, using a bath towel. Put a rolled up towel under the ball of one foot, holding both ends of the towel with your left and right hand. Next, slowly pull the towel towards you, while keeping your knee straight (the other knee may be bent). Hold this position for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat 4 times and change to the other foot, if necessary. If you don't have a towel handy, simply put your foot on your knee and grab your toes and pull them towards your shin, hold for about 10 seconds.
5. Stretch your calf muscles
Stand facing a wall with your hands on the wall at about eye level. Put one leg about a step behind your other leg, keeping your back heel flat on the floor. Make sure this leg stays straight at all times. Now bend the knee of the front leg slowly, lowering your body until you feel a stretch in the calf of the back leg. Hold the stretch for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat 4 times. Do the same for the other leg.
Please make sure you don't walk barefoot at home in the morning, as this will undo all the hard work! Wear shoes or supportive sandals as soon as you have done the Plantar Fasciitis exercises.
You can repeat any of these heel pain exercises during the day, if you wish. For example the tennis/golf ball rolling can be done as you watch TV or read the paper. There's one more exercise you may want to do which is called the Achilles Tendon stretch. Stand on a step with both feet on the same step and slowly let your heels down over the edge of the step as you relax your calf muscles. Hold this stretch for about 15 to 20 seconds, then tighten your calf muscle a little to bring your heel back up to the level of the step. Repeat 4 times.
Please note that stretching exercises should create a pulling feeling, they should never cause pain!
6. Take an anti-inflammatory drug, like Ibuprofen
To ease your Plantar Fasciitis you can take an anti-inflammatory that contains Ibuprofen, like Nurofen or Advil. This is a short term fix that will help decrease the inflammation of the plantar fascia. You still need to do take all the other measures such as stretching, ice, orthotics etc to achieve long term pain relief from your heel problem. For many people Ibuprofen is pretty heavy on the stomach and therefore these drugs should be taken in moderation.
7. Lose some weight
As we get older we tend to put in a bit of extra weight. The combination of weight gain and ageing means we put a lot of extra tension on our muscles and ligaments in the feet, legs and back. Most people tend to over-pronate because of weight gain. Over-pronation (fallen arches) is the main cause of Plantar Fasciitis and heel pain. Therefore by losing weight you will decrease the tension on the plantar fascia.
8. Wear the right footwear
Supportive footwear is paramount, especially as we get older. Floppy footwear causes ankle instability during walking and contributes to the problem of over-pronation, leading to heel pain and other foot problems. A good supportive shoe should only bend at the sole in the forefoot area and should be firm elsewhere, especially the back section of the shoe (heel counter) should be firm. Many footwear companies advertise shock-absorption and cushioning as the major benefits of their (sports) shoes. Stability is far more important than cushioning!
9. Use a night splint
A night splint holds the foot at 90 degrees during your sleep. The aim of the splints is to keep your foot and calf muscles stretched during the night. Normally during rest the plantar fascia and calves tend to tighten and shorten. So when you wake up in the morning and take your first steps, the fascia are being pulled all of a sudden, causing the sharp pain in the heel.
The problem with night splints is that they can be quite uncomfortable. This is why they are so-called sock night splints on the market which are more bearable than rigid night splints.
10. Wear orthotics in your shoes
Research has shown that by far the most effective way to treat Plantar Fasciitis is wearing a corrective device inside the shoe. Orthotics are designed to correct the problem of over-pronation, the major cause of plantar fasciitis and heel pain. Orthotics support the arches and control abnormal motion of the feet, thereby greatly reducing the tension in the plantar fascia band. Especially when combined with daily exercises, orthotics will provide relief to the majority of Plantar Fasciitis sufferers. Orthotics can be obtained from a foot specialist (podiatrist). These are called custom orthotics and they usually quite hard. Nowadays there are softer orthotics on the market, which are made of EVA and which mould themselves to the wearer's foot shape because of body heat and body weight. These softer orthotics are pre-made and available without a prescription from pharmacies and specialty websites.
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