Heel spurs are new bone that forms in response to stress to the heel. They serve to protect the bone against the development of microfractures. Spurs start out as cartilage and progress to solid bone. They are present in about 50 percent of the population, yet not everyone has heel pain- that's the first clue that heel spurs don't always cause heel pain.
The plantar fascia is a big strong ligament on the bottom of the foot, starting at the bottom of the heel bone and running into the ball of the foot. As the arch of the foot becomes weak, it sags slightly with each step and this causes the plantar fascia to tug and pull at the heel bone with each step. Over a period of time, a spur forms where this big strong ligament tugs and pulls at the heel bone. Soon, inflammation (swelling) starts around this spur and the pain becomes almost unbearable. (Sometimes heel spurs may be present without being painful if no inflammation is present).
An individual with the lower legs turning inward, a condition called genu valgus or "knock knees," can have a tendency toward excessive pronation. This can lead to a fallen arch and problems with the plantar fascia and heel spurs. Women tend to suffer from this condition more than men. Heel spurs can also result from an abnormally high arch. Other factors leading to heel spurs include a sudden increase in daily activities, an increase in weight, or a thinner cushion on the bottom of the heel due to old age. A significant increase in training intensity or duration may cause inflammation of the plantar fascia. High-heeled shoes, improperly fitted shoes, and shoes that are too flexible in the middle of the arch or bend before the toe joints will cause problems with the plantar fascia and possibly lead to heel spurs.
Diagnosis of a heel spur can be done with an x-ray, which will be able to reveal the bony spur. Normally, it occurs where the plantar fascia connects to the heel bone. When the plantar fascia ligament is pulled excessively it begins to pull away from the heel bone. When this excessive pulling occurs, it causes the body to respond by depositing calcium in the injured area, resulting in the formation of the bone spur. The Plantar fascia ligament is a fibrous band of connective tissue running between the heel bone and the ball of the foot. This structure maintains the arch of the foot and distributes weight along the foot as we walk. However, due to the stress that this ligament must endure, it can easily become damaged which commonly occurs along with heel spurs.
Non Surgical Treatment
The most important part of treatment is to rest. Do not undertake activities which hurt the foot or aggravate symptoms as will only cause painful symptoms to persist. Apply an ice pack regularly for 10 minutes at a time every hour initially to reduce pain and inflammation of the surrounding tissues. As symptoms subside frequency of application can reduce to 2 or 3 times per day. Exercises and stretches to keep the foot and ankle strong and mobile are important as long as pain allows. Stretching the plantar fascia is important, especially if symptoms are worse in the morning. A plantar fasciitis night splint is excellent for stretching and preventing the plantar fascia tightening up over night. Anti-Inflammatory medicine (e.g. ibuprofen) may be prescribed by a doctor but always check with a medical professional first as taking some medications such as ibuprofen should not be done if the patient has asthma. Shoe inserts can help to take the pressure off of the spur and reduce pain. If these treatments do not significantly ease the symptoms then surgery may be an option.
When chronic heel pain fails to respond to conservative treatment, surgical treatment may be necessary. Heel surgery can provide pain relief and restore mobility. The type of procedure used is based on examination and usually consists of releasing the excessive tightness of the plantar fascia, called a plantar fascia release. The procedure may also include removal of heel spurs.