In the setting of plantar fasciitis, heel spurs are most often seen in middle-aged men and women, but can be found in all age groups. The heel spur itself is not thought to be the primary cause of pain, rather inflammation and irritation of the plantar fascia is thought to be the primary problem. A heel spur diagnosis is made when an x-ray shows a hook of bone protruding from the bottom of the foot at the point where the plantar fascia is attached to the heel bone.
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).
With heel spurs, people often talk about a dull ache which is felt most of the time with episodes of a sharp pain in the center of the heel or on the inside margin of the heel. Often the pain is worse on first rising in the morning and after rest and is aggravated by prolonged weight bearing and thin-soled shoes.
Diagnosis is made using a few different technologies. X-rays are often used first to ensure there is no fracture or tumor in the region. Then ultrasound is used to check the fascia itself to make sure there is no tear and check the level of scar tissue and damage. Neurosensory testing, a non-painful nerve test, can be used to make sure there is not a local nerve problem if the pain is thought to be nerve related. It is important to remember that one can have a very large heel spur and no plantar fasciitis issues or pain at all, or one can have a great deal of pain and virtually no spur at all.
Non Surgical Treatment
Treatment of heel spurs is the same as treatment of plantar fasciitis. Because these problems are related, the treatment is the same. The first step in the treatment of a heel spur is short-term rest and inflammation control. Here are the steps patients should take in order to cure the symptoms of plantar fasciitis and heel spurs. Avoiding the activity that caused the symptoms is the first step in treatment. For example, take a few day off jogging or prolonged standing/walking. Just resting usually helps to eliminate the most severe pain, and will allow the inflammation to begin to cool down. Icing will help to diminish some of the symptoms and control the heel pain. Icing is especially helpful after a sudden flare up of symptoms. Exercises and stretches are designed to relax the tissues that surround the heel bone. Some simple exercises, performed in the morning and evening, often help patients feel better quickly. Many patients will work with a physical therapist, or you can try some simple activities on your own. If you need some help, meet with a therapist for a few sessions to learn a program you can continue on your own.
When chronic heel pain fails to respond to conservative treatment, surgical treatment may be necessary. Heel surgery can provide relief of pain 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. Depending on the presence of excess bony build up, the procedure may or may not include removal of heel spurs. Similar to other surgical interventions, there are various modifications and surgical enhancements regarding surgery of the heel.