What is heel pain?
Heel pain is a common foot condition. It is usually felt as an intense pain when using the affected heel.
Heel pain usually builds up gradually and gets worse over time. The pain is often severe and occurs when you place weight on the heel.
In most cases only one heel is affected, although estimates suggest around a third of people have pain in both heels.
The pain is usually worse first thing in the morning, or when you first take a step after a period of inactivity. After walking the pain usually improves, but often gets worse again after walking or standing for a long time.
Some people may limp or develop an abnormal walking style as they try to avoid placing weight on the affected heel.
What causes heel pain?
Most cases of heel pain are caused when a band of tissue in the foot, known as the plantar fascia, becomes damage and thickened.
Plantar fasciitis is the medical term for the thickening of the plantar fascia.
The plantar fascia
The plantar fascia is a tough and flexible band of tissue that runs under the sole of the foot. It connects the heel bone with the bones of the foot, and acts as a kind of shock absorber to the foot.
Sudden damage, or damage that occurs over many months or years, can cause tiny tears (microtears) to develop inside the tissue of the plantar fascia. This can cause the plantar fascia to thicken, resulting in heel pain.
The surrounding tissue and the heel bone can also sometimes become inflamed.
Read more about the causes of heel pain.
In most cases, your doctor or a podiatrist (a specialist in foot problems and foot care) should be able to diagnose the cause of your heel pain by:
- asking about your symptoms and medical history
- examining your heel and foot
Read more about how heel pain is diagnosed.
Treating heel pain
There are a number of treatments that can help relieve heel pain and speed up your recovery. These include:
- resting your heel – try to avoid walking long distances and standing for long periods
- regular stretching – stretching your calf muscles and plantar fascia
- pain relief – using an icepack on the affected heel and taking painkillers, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- wearing good-fitting shoes that support and cushion your foot – running shoes are particularly useful
- using supportive devices such as orthoses (rigid supports you put inside your shoe) or strapping
Around four out of five cases of heel pain resolve within a year. However, having heel pain for this length of time can often be frustrating and painful.
In around one in 20 cases, the above treatments are not enough and surgery may be recommended to release the plantar fascia.
Read more about treating heel pain.
Preventing heel pain
Being overweight can place excess pressure and strain on your feet, particularly on your heels. Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight by combining regular exercise with a healthy balanced diet can be beneficial for your feet.
Wearing appropriate footwear is also important. Ideally, you should wear shoes with a low to moderate heel that supports and cushions your arches and heels. Avoid wearing shoes with no heels.
Read more about preventing heel pain.
Causes of heel pain
Plantar fasciitis is the most common cause of heel pain, accounting for about four out of five cases.
Plantar fasciitis is when the thick band of tissue that connects the heel bone with the rest of the foot (the plantar fascia) becomes damaged and thickened.
Damage to the plantar fascia is thought to occur following:
- sudden damage – for example, damaging your heel while jogging, running or dancing; this type of damage usually affects younger people who are physically active
- gradual wear and tear of the tissues that make up the plantar fascia – this usually affects adults who are 40 years of age or over
You are at an increased risk of gradual wear and tear damaging your plantar fasciitis if you are:
- overweight or obese – you are obese if you have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or over
- have a job that involves spending long periods of time standing
- wear flat-soled shoes, such as sandals or flip flops
Less common causes
Less common causes of heel pain are described below.
A stress fracture can occur if your heel bone is damaged during an injury.
Fat pad atrophy
Fat pad atrophy is where the layer of fat that lies under the heel bone, known as the fat pad, starts to waste away due to too much strain being placed on the pad.
Women who wear high-heeled shoes for many years have an increased risk of developing fat pad atrophy.
Bursitis is inflammation of one or more bursa (small fluid-filled sacs under the skin usually found over the joints and between tendons and bones).
It is possible to develop bursitis anywhere inside the body, not just in the foot.
Tarsal tunnel syndrome
The nerves in the sole of your foot pass through a small tunnel on the inside of the ankle joint, known as the tarsal tunnel. If a cyst forms or the tunnel is damaged, the nerves can become compressed (squashed). This can cause pain anywhere along the nerve, including beneath your heel.
Sever's disease is a common cause of heel pain in children. It is caused by the muscles and tendons of the hamstrings and calves stretching and tightening in response to growth spurts.
The stretching of the calf muscle pulls on the Achilles tendon. This pulls on the growing area of bone at the back of the heel (growth plate), causing pain in the heel.
The pain is further aggravated by activities such as football and gymnastics. The pain often develops at the side of the heel, but can also be felt under the heel.
Calf and hamstring stretches and, if necessary, heel pads are usually effective treatments for Sever's disease.
Diagnosing heel pain
Your doctor or podiatrist (a healthcare professional who specialises in foot care) may be able to diagnose the cause of your heel pain by asking about your symptoms and examining your heel and foot.
You will usually only need further tests if you have additional symptoms that suggest the cause of your heel pain is not inflammation, such as:
- numbness or a tingling sensation in your foot – this could be a sign of nerve damage in your foot and legs (peripheral neuropathy)
- your foot feels hot and you have a high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above – these could be signs of a bone infection
- you have stiffness and swelling in your heel – this could be a sign of arthritis
Possible further tests may include:
- blood tests
- X-rays, where small doses of radiation are used to detect problems with your bones and tissues
- a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or ultrasound scan, which are more detailed scans
Heel pain treatment
Treatment for heel pain usually involves using a combination of techniques, such as stretches and painkillers, to relieve pain and speed up recovery.
Most cases of heel pain get better within 12 months. Surgery may be recommended as a last resort if your symptoms don't improve after 12 months. Only one in 20 people with heel pain will need surgery.
Whenever possible, rest the affected foot by avoiding walking long distances and standing for long periods. However, you should regularly stretch your feet and calves using exercises such as those described below.
Some people also find applying an ice pack to the affected heel for five to 10 minutes can help relieve pain and inflammation. However, do not apply an ice pack directly to your skin. Instead, you should wrap it in a towel. If you do not have an ice pack, you can use a packet of frozen vegetables.
Exercises designed to stretch both your calf muscles and your plantar fascia (the band of tissue that runs under the sole of your foot) should help relieve pain and improve flexibility in the affected foot.
A number of stretching exercises are described below. It is usually recommended you do the exercises on both legs, even if only one of your heels is affected by pain. This will improve your balance and stability, as well as helping to relieve heel pain.
Keep a long towel beside your bed. Before you get out of bed in the morning, loop the towel around your foot and use it to pull your toes towards your body while keeping your knee straight. Repeat three times on each foot.
Place both hands on a wall at shoulder height with one of your feet in front of the other. The front foot should be about 30cm (12 inches) away from the wall.
With your front knee bent and your back leg straight, lean towards the wall until you feel a tightening in the calf muscles of your back leg. Then relax.
Repeat this exercise 10 times before switching legs and repeating the cycle. You should practise wall stretches twice a day.
Stand on a step of your stairs facing upstairs, using your banister for support. Your feet should be slightly apart with your heels hanging off the back of the step.
Lower your heels until you feel a tightening in your calves. Hold this position for about 40 seconds before raising your heels back to the starting position. Repeat this procedure six times, at least twice a day.
Sit on a chair with your knees bent at right angles. Turn your feet sideways so your heels are touching and your toes are pointing in opposite directions. Lift the toes of the affected foot upwards while keeping the heel firmly on the floor.
You should feel your calf muscles and Achilles tendon (the band of tissue that connects your heel bone to your calf muscle) tighten. Hold this position for several seconds and then relax. Repeat this procedure 10 times, five to six times a day.
While seated, roll the arch of your foot (the curved bottom part of the foot between your toes and heel) over a round object, such as a rolling pin, tennis ball or drink can. Some people find that using a chilled can from their fridge has the added benefit of helping to relieve pain.
Move your foot and ankle in all directions over the object for several minutes. Repeat the exercise twice a day.
Depending on your usual choice of footwear, your doctor or podiatrist may advise you to change your footwear.
You should avoid wearing flat-soled shoes because they will not provide your heel with support and could make your heel pain worse.
Ideally, you should wear shoes that cushion your heels and provide a good level of support to the arches of your feet.
For women, wearing high heels and for men, wearing heeled boots or brogues can provide short- to medium-term pain relief, as they help reduce pressure on the heels.
However, these types of shoes may not be suitable in the long-term because they can lead to further episodes of heel pain. Your doctor or podiatrist will be able to advise further about footwear.
Orthoses are insoles that fit inside your shoe to support your foot and help your heel recover. You can buy orthoses off-the-shelf from sports shops and larger pharmacies, or your podiatrist should be able to recommend a supplier.
If your pain does not respond to treatment and keeps recurring, or if you have an abnormal foot shape or structure, custom-made orthoses are available. They are specifically made to fit the shape of your feet.
However, there is currently no evidence to suggest that custom-made orthoses are more effective than those bought off-the-shelf.
Strapping and splinting
An alternative to using orthoses is to have your heel strapped with sports strapping (zinc oxide) tape. The strapping helps relieve pressure on your heel. Your doctor or podiatrist should be able to teach you how to apply the tape yourself.
In some cases, night splints can also be useful. Most people sleep with their toes pointing down, which means tissue inside the heel is squeezed together.
Night splints, which look like boots, are designed to keep your toes and feet pointing up while you are asleep. This will stretch both your Achilles tendon and your plantar fascia, which should help speed up your recovery time.
Night splints are usually only available from specialist shops and online retailers. Again, your podiatrist should be able to recommend a supplier.
If treatment hasn't helped relieve your painful symptoms, your doctor may recommend corticosteroid injections.
Corticosteroids are a type of medication that have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. They have to be used sparingly because overuse can cause serious side effects, such as weight gain and high blood pressure (hypertension).
As a result, it is usually recommended that no more than three corticosteroid injections are given within a year in any part of the body.
Before having a corticosteroid injection, a local anaesthetic (painkilling medication) may be used to numb your foot so you do not feel any pain.
If treatment hasn't worked and you still have painful symptoms after a year, your doctor may refer you to either:
- an orthopaedic surgeon – a surgeon who specialises in surgery that involves bones, muscles and joints
- a podiatric surgeon – a podiatrist who specialises in foot surgery
Surgery is sometimes recommended for professional athletes and other sportspeople whose heel pain is adversely affecting their career.
Plantar release surgery
Plantar release surgery is the most widely used type of surgery for heel pain. The surgeon will cut the fascia to release it from your heel bone and reduce the tension in your plantar fascia. This in turn should reduce any inflammation and relieve your painful symptoms.
Surgery can be performed either as:
- open surgery – where the section of the plantar fascia is released by making a cut into your heel
- endoscopic or minimal incision surgery – where a smaller incision is made and special instruments are inserted through the incision to gain access to the plantar fascia
Endoscopic or minimal incision surgery has a quicker recovery time, so you will be able to walk normally much sooner (almost immediately) compared with two to three weeks for open surgery.
A disadvantage of endoscopic surgery is that it requires both a specially trained surgical team and specialised equipment, so you may have to wait longer for treatment than if you were to choose open surgery.
Endoscopic surgery also carries a higher risk of damaging nearby nerves, which could result in symptoms such as numbness, tingling or some loss of movement in your foot.
As with all surgery, plantar release carries the risk of causing complications such as infection, nerve damage and a worsening of your symptoms after surgery (although this is rare).
You should discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both techniques with your surgical team.
Extracorporeal shockwave therapy (EST)
Extracorporeal shockwave therapy (EST) is a fairly new type of non-invasive treatment. Non-invasive means it does not involve making cuts into your body.
EST involves using a device to deliver high energy soundwaves into your heel. The soundwaves can sometimes cause pain, so a local anaesthetic may be used to numb your heel.
It is claimed that EST works in two ways. It is thought to:
- have a 'numbing' effect on the nerves that transmit pain signals to your brain
- help stimulate and speed up the healing process
However, these claims have not yet been definitely proven.
Some studies have reported EST is more effective than surgery and other non-surgical treatments, while other studies found the procedure to be no better than a placebo (sham treatment).
Preventing heel pain
It is not always possible to prevent heel pain, but there are measures you can take to help avoid further episodes.
Being overweight can place excess pressure and strain on your feet, particularly on your heels. This increases the risk of damaging your feet and heels.
If you are overweight, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight by combining regular exercise with a healthy balanced diet can be beneficial for your feet.
You can calculate your body mass index (BMI) to find out whether you are a healthy weight for your height and build.
To work out your BMI, divide your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared. A BMI of:
- less than 18.5 means that you are underweight
- 18.5-24.9 means that your weight is healthy
- 25-29 means that you are overweight
- 30-40 means that you are obese
- over 40 means that you are morbidly obese
You can also use the BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your BMI. Read more about obesity.
You should always wear footwear that is appropriate for your environment and day-to-day activities.
Wearing high heels when you go out in the evening is unlikely to be harmful. However, wearing them all week at work may damage your feet, particularly if your job involves a lot of walking or standing.
Ideally, you should wear shoes with laces and a low to moderate heel that supports and cushions your arches and heels. Avoid wearing shoes with no heels.
Do not walk barefoot on hard ground, particularly while on holiday. Many cases of heel pain occur when a person protects their feet for 50 weeks of the year and then suddenly walks barefoot while on holiday. Their feet are not accustomed to the extra pressure, which causes heel pain.
If you do a physical activity, such as running or another form of exercise that places additional strain on your feet, you should replace your sports shoes regularly. Most experts recommend sports shoes should be replaced after you have done about 500 miles in them.
It is also a good idea to always stretch after exercising, and to make strength and flexibility training a part of your regular exercise routine.