Most people enjoy the occasional spur-of-the-moment decision, such as an impromptu visit to the spa after a particularly difficult day. Yet such things are usually best in moderation. When your spur-of-the-moment becomes a spur-of-all-the-time—say, a heel spur in your foot—you’ll surely tire of it quickly. This common foot condition, a bony growth on your heel, forms in response to damage in surrounding tissues and in some situations can cause intermittent or chronic pain.
Causes and Risk Factors
Heel spurs are a “companion condition” of sorts, frequently appearing alongside plantar fasciitis (though each can occur independently, as well). They generally grow slowly over a period of several months. Constant strain and tearing on the muscles, ligaments, membranes, and other tissues (particularly the plantar fascia, the band of tissue running across your sole from heel to toes) protecting and covering the heel bone allows deposits of calcium to build up there as the bone attempts to make repairs, forming a pointy spur. These heels spurs start out small, but they can grow to half an inch long or more!
Playing sports that involve a lot of running and jumping (especially on hard surfaces) magnifies your risk for developing this condition, because such activities can easily damage the tissues protecting the bone. Other risk factors include age, obesity, foot deformities (such as low or high arches), walking gait abnormalities, diabetes, or jobs that require you to stand and walk for most of the day.
Unlike its companion plantar fasciitis, heel spurs themselves are often symptomless. If the bony growth is irritating the soft tissues surrounding it, however, the resulting swelling and inflammation can cause some tenderness and discomfort. This is often especially true during periods of activity, such as jogging. In the most severe cases, intermittent or chronic heel pain from spurs may significantly limit your mobility, preventing you from enjoying pleasurable activities or accomplishing daily tasks.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Although plantar fasciitis may be diagnosed with a simple physical evaluation and review of symptoms, heel spurs generally require an X-ray to confirm. Initial pain relief strategies generally include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication and icing the affected area.
Once a diagnosis is made, conservative measures are the first to be deployed. These treatments will not remove the bony growth itself, but may significantly reduce or alleviate any painful symptoms you may have and minimize the risk of re-injuring your soft tissues, preventing the heel spur from growing larger.
The best tactics generally depend on the underlying cause. For example, people with gait abnormalities, flat feet, or high arches often benefit tremendously from a shoe insert or custom orthotic device. These might include arch supports that protect the plantar fascia, to heel cups that cushion and protect the heel bone, to full-foot orthoses that improve biomechanics.
Many with heel spurs may benefit from physical therapy as well, with stretches designed to gently relax and strengthen tight tissues that lead to deposit formation. Those with other common risk factors can also improve their outcomes by managing their underlying conditions—for example, losing weight and getting fit if you’re overweight, or managing your blood sugar levels carefully if you have diabetes.
Although these non-invasive treatments work well for most patients, a few may require surgery to eliminate painful symptoms. A typical procedure will remove the bony outgrowth, and may also release and relax the plantar fascia as well. Although surgery is usually highly successful, all the normal surgical risks apply, including nerve damage, scarring, and other possible side effects. That’s why you should only consider going under the knife if conservative methods fail to remedy your symptoms even after a period of at least several months.
Spurring a Response
Because symptomatic heel spurs generally respond very well to simple, non-invasive techniques, there’s no reason to keep living in pain. That discomfort should spur you on to visit Family Foot and Ankle Center in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Our expert podiatrists will carefully evaluate your condition and draw up a treatment plan for your unique situation. Give us a call at (513) 728-4800 in Ohio, (859) 282-1572 in Kentucky, or set up an appointment online.