Patients and doctors often confuse the terms heel spur and plantar fasciitis. While these two diagnoses are related, they are not the same. Plantar fasciitis refers to the inflammation of the plantar fascia–the tissue that forms the arch of the foot. A heel spur is a hook of bone that can form on the heel bone (calcaneus) and is associated with plantar fasciitis. About 70 percent of patients with plantar fasciitis have a heel spur that can be seen on an X-ray. However, many patients without symptoms of pain can have a heel spur. The exact relationship between plantar fasciitis and heel spurs is not entirely understood.
Heel spurs occur when calcium deposits build up on the underside of the heel bone, a process that usually occurs over a period of many months. Heel spurs are often caused by strains on foot muscles and ligaments, stretching of the plantar fascia, and repeated tearing of the membrane that covers the heel bone. Heel spurs are especially common among athletes whose activities include large amounts of running and jumping. Risk factors for heel spurs include walking gait abnormalities,which place excessive stress on the heel bone, ligaments, and nerves near the heel. Running or jogging, especially on hard surfaces. Poorly fitted or badly worn shoes, especially those lacking appropriate arch support. Excess weight and obesity. Other risk factors associated with plantar fasciitis include increasing age, which decreases plantar fascia flexibility and thins the heel’s protective fat pad. Diabetes. Spending most of the day on one’s feet. Frequent short bursts of physical activity. Having either flat feet or high arches.
The following symptoms are typical of heel spur. Stabbing pain when treading on the area affected. Dull, irregularly occurring pains in the heel area also without exerting pressure (e.g. in a reclining position) Pain when taking the first steps in the morning (after lying or sitting down for an extended period, especially in the morning) Occasional swelling in the ankle area. For the lower heel spur, extreme sensitivity at the tendon attachment (laterally in the lower heel area) For the upper heel spur, extreme pressure sensitivity of the Achilles tendon, primarily at approximately ankle height.
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
Heel pain may be associated with a heel spur, however the heel pain is usually due to plantar fasciitis, rather than a heel spur, so treatment is usually directed at the plantar fasciitis itself. Treatment usually involves application of ice to reduce pain and inflammation, special stretching exercises, and pain-relieving or anti-inflammatory medicines. Night splints or orthotics may be recommended. It may help to avoid the activities that aggravate pain, such as long walks and running. Surgery is very rarely recommended and only after other measures fail.
Sometimes bone spurs can be surgically removed or an operation to loosen the fascia, called a plantar fascia release can be performed. This surgery is about 80 percent effective in the small group of individuals who do not have relief with conservative treatment, but symptoms may return if preventative measures (wearing proper footwear, shoe inserts, stretching, etc) are not maintained.