Plantar fasciitis is one of the most common conditions causing heel pain. The condition involves inflammation of the plantar fascia — a tough, fibrous band of tissue that runs along the sole of the foot with attachments to the heel bone (calcaneus) proximally and to the base of the toes distally. The plantar fascia provides support to the arch of the foot and has an important role in normal foot mechanics during walking. Tension or stress in the plantar fascia increases when one places weight on the foot (such as with standing) and as one pushes off on the ball of the foot and toes — motions which occur during normal walking or running. Inflammation and pain start in the fascia either as a result of an increase in activity level (as in initiating a walking or running program), or in association with the normal aging process. With aging, the fascia loses some of its normal elasticity or resilience and can become irritated with routine daily activities. Less commonly, plantar fasciitis can develop in association with general medical conditions such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
Currently no single factor has been reliably identified as contributing to the development of plantar fasciitis. The two risk factors with the most support from current research. Decreased ankle dorsiflexion. Increased Body Mass Index (BMI) in non-athletic populations. These factors are related in that both lead to increased strain on the arch, both lead to increased compression on the heel. When dorsiflexion range of motion (ankle flexibility) is lacking, the body compensates by increasing movement of the arch. In this way, decreased ankle dorsiflexion influences pronation and places strain on the underside of the foot. Similarly, having a high BMI causes strain because it places a load on the foot that may be in excess of what the foot can support. As mentioned earlier, overpronation is thought to be a contributing factor, but studies on this have so far produced mixed results. The second way these factors relate to each other is in the way people stand. A lack of ankle flexibility and a high BMI can both cause increased pressure on the heel in standing. Keeping weight on the heels causes compression under the heel. But it also means the muscles and ligaments in the arch are not being used to balance your body weight. Lack of use, I suspect, is a greater danger than overuse. Looking beyond these potential contributors to heel pain though, there is one major factor that overshadows them all-the way footwear alters the normal function of the foot.
Patients with plantar fasciitis typically experience pain underneath the heel and along the inner sole of the foot. In less severe cases, patients may only experience an ache or stiffness in the plantar fascia or heel that increases with rest (typically at night or first thing in the morning) following activities which place stress on the plantar fascia. These activities typically include standing, walking or running excessively (especially up hills, on uneven surfaces or in poor footwear such as thongs), jumping, hopping and general weight bearing activity. The pain associated with this condition may also warm up with activity in the initial stages of injury. As the condition progresses, patients may experience symptoms that increase during sport or activity, affecting performance. In severe cases, patients may walk with a limp or be unable to weight bear on the affected leg. Patients with this condition may also experience swelling, tenderness on firmly touching the plantar fascia (often on a specific spot on the inner aspect of the heel) and sometimes pain on performing a plantar fascia stretch.
To arrive at a diagnosis, the foot and ankle surgeon will obtain your medical history and examine your foot. Throughout this process the surgeon rules out all the possible causes for your heel pain other than plantar fasciitis. In addition, diagnostic imaging studies such as x-rays or other imaging modalities may be used to distinguish the different types of heel pain. Sometimes heel spurs are found in patients with plantar fasciitis, but these are rarely a source of pain. When they are present, the condition may be diagnosed as plantar fasciitis/heel spur syndrome.
Non Surgical Treatment
In the early stages of plantar fasciitis resting the foot may ease the pain. Medication to reduce inflammation should help but should only be used short term. Strapping may temporarily reduce the pain. All of the above therapies are only temporary measures and the pain is likely to reoccur if the cause of the abnormal pressure which has triggered the plantar fasciitis has not been identified. In order to establish the cause of the plantar fasciitis a biomechanical assessment may be required.
In unusual cases, surgical intervention is necessary for relief of pain. These should only be employed after non-surgical efforts have been used without relief. Generally, such surgical procedures may be completed on an outpatient basis in less than one hour, using local anesthesia or minimal sedation administrated by a trained anesthesiologist. In such cases, the surgeon may remove or release the injured and inflamed fascia, after a small incision is made in the heel. A surgical procedure may also be undertaken to remove bone spurs, sometimes as part of the same surgery addressing the damaged tissue. A cast may be used to immobilize the foot following surgery and crutches provided in order to allow greater mobility while keeping weight off the recovering foot during healing. After removal of the cast, several weeks of physical therapy can be used to speed recovery, reduce swelling and restore flexibility.