In our pursuit of healthy bodies, pain can be an enemy. In some instances, however, it is of biological benefit. Pain that occurs right after an injury or early in an illness may play a protective role, often warning us about the damage we’ve suffered.
When we sprain an ankle, for example, the pain warns us that the ligament and soft tissues may be frayed and bruised, and that further activity may cause additional injury.
Pain, such as may occur in our heels, also alerts us to seek medical attention. This alert is of utmost importance because of the many afflictions that contribute to heel pain.
Heel pain is generally the result of faulty biomechanics (walking gait abnormalities) that place too much stress on the heel bone and the soft tissues that attach to it. The stress may also result from injury, or a bruise incurred while walking, running, or jumping on hard surfaces; wearing poorly constructed footwear; or being overweight.
The heel bone is the largest of the 26 bones in the human foot, which also has 33 joints and a network of more than 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments. Like all bones, it is subject to outside influences that can affect its integrity and its ability to keep us on our feet. Heel pain, sometimes disabling, can occur in the front, back, or bottom of the heel.
A common cause of heel pain is the heel spur, a bony growth on the underside of the heel bone. The spur, visible by X-ray, appears as a protrusion that can extend forward as much as half an inch. When there is no indication of bone enlargement, the condition is sometimes referred to as “heel spur syndrome.”
Heel spurs result from strain on the muscles and ligaments of the foot, by stretching of the long band of tissue that connects the heel and the ball of the foot, and by repeated tearing away of the lining or membrane that covers the heel bone. These conditions may result from biomechanical imbalance, running or jogging, improperly fitted or excessively worn shoes, or obesity.
Disease and Heel Pain
Some general health conditions can also bring about heel pain.
- Rheumatoid arthritis and other forms of arthritis, including gout, which usually manifests itself in the big toe joint, can cause heel discomfort in some cases.
- Heel pain may also be the result of an inflamed bursa (bursitis), a small, irritated sack of fluid; aneuroma (a nerve growth); or other soft-tissue growth. Such heel pain may be associated with a heel spur or may mimic the pain of a heel spur.
- Haglund’s deformity (“pump bump”) is a bone enlargement at the back of the heel bone, in the area where the achilles tendon attaches to the bone. This sometimes painful deformity generally is the result of bursitis caused by pressure against the shoe and can be aggravated by the height or stitching of a heel counter of a particular shoe.
- Pain at the back of the heel is associated with inflammation of the achilles tendon as it runs behind the ankle and inserts on the back surface of the heel bone. The inflammation is called achilles tendinitis. It is common among people who run and walk a lot and have tight tendons. The condition occurs when the tendon is strained over time, causing the fibers to tear or stretch along its length, or at its insertion on to the heel bone. This leads to inflammation, pain, and the possible growth of a bone spur on the back of the heel bone. The inflammation is aggravated by the chronic irritation that sometimes accompanies an active lifestyle and certain activities that strain an already tight tendon.
- Bone bruises are common heel injuries. A bone bruise or contusion is an inflammation of the tissues that cover the heel bone. A bone bruise is a sharply painful injury caused by the direct impact of a hard object or surface on the foot.
Stress fractures of the heel bone also can occur, although infrequently.
Doctors who specialize in this condition: