How to Handle Sports Injuries in the Heel
When people think of sports injuries to the foot, the heel might not be the first area of vulnerability they imagine. After all, it’s the toes and the front of the foot that are often leading the charge and colliding with objects, right?
But sports injuries to the heel area are far from rare. All you have to do is mention the Achilles tendon, and most athletes will remember that, oh yes, heels are far from impervious to pain.
And Achilles tendinitis is not the only type of sports injury that can lead to pain in the heels, either. There are others that can arise based on your activities, your foot structure, the support your feet receive, and even your age.
We will dive a bit deeper into potential causes, but one thing should be clear right off the bat: Whatever the cause of painful heels may be, persistent discomfort should never be ignored – especially when you’re heavily active. Not taking the right steps to treat and manage the problem is an easy way to risk it becoming even worse, so never hesitate to contact us at Southern California Foot & Ankle Specialists for help!
What Might that Heel Pain Be?
There are multiple different causes of heel pain, and many of them can be tied to physical activity factors such as overuse or trauma. Here are a few of the more common conditions we see.
What is it? The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscle to the heel bone (calcaneus). When overly strained, the Achilles can become aggravated and inflamed. In more severe cases, the tendon may also develop partial or complete tears.
What does it feel like? Pain from Achilles tendinitis tends to start as a mild ache just above the back of the heel that develops after activity. Pain may become worse if your activity involved sprinting, climbing stairs or hills, or running over long distances. The area might also feel stiff and uncomfortable in the morning, but improve as you begin to move around some.
What is it? The plantar fascia is a thick band of tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes. Like the Achilles tendon, it too can become aggravated and painful when it endures too much stress.
What does it feel like? Perhaps the most common symptom of plantar fasciitis is a sharp, stabbing pain that hits the heels as soon as you get out of bed in the morning, and takes a few minutes of movement to recede. You may also tend to feel some pain after exercising.
What are they? Repetitive impacts can break down bones on a cellular level. When allowed enough time to rest, the body can properly recover and come back stronger. Not given enough time, the bone can continue to weaken and develop cracks along its surface.
What does it feel like? Pain from stress fractures will most often be felt during activities, and tend to lessen while resting. The area may be tender to the touch, and you might also see some bruising along the heel as well.
What is it? In children, usually between 8-15 years of age, the heel bone is quickly growing and developing. The heel bone can grow faster than the connected muscles and tendons, forcing them to pull more on the sensitive growth area of the heel. This, in addition to repetitive stresses from activity, can cause pain and inflammation in that growth area.
What does it feel like? Symptoms of Sever’s disease include a stiff, uncomfortable pain in the heel that might cause limping or some difficulty with walking. Pain can be worst after running, but can also be present in the morning. You might see some swelling or redness in the heel area.
You might have seen some similarities between these cases, such as whether pain is worst during activity or after a long period of rest. Keep in mind that these are not the only potential options for heel injuries, either! It is always important to properly diagnose your condition in order to determine how best to approach treatment.
Treating Heel Pain Sports Injuries
We know that you (or your child) might not like to hear this, but the first step to take when heel pain is persistent is an immediate reduction (or cessation) of the activities that are causing that pain. Pain is always a sign that something is not right, and trying to ignore it will only lead to trouble.
Just keep in mind that these changes are meant to be temporary, and we plan to get you back to doing what you love at full strength as quickly and safely as we can.
You usually don’t have to entirely halt exercise, either. We can help you organize a workout plan that takes the stress off your heels while still keeping you moving. Swimming, cycling, and cross-training can be valuable tools in this regard.
Taking care of the condition will not only require obtaining an accurate diagnosis, but also identifying all the underlying causes. Achilles tendinitis, for example, can be simply from overuse, but other factors (such as an abnormality in your foot structure, poor footwear, or tight calf muscles) can also be at play. If we don’t identify and address them all, the odds of the problem returning increase.
Potential treatments that may be considered, depending on each case, include:
- Rest and icing
- Changes to footwear and/or routines
- Custom orthotics, prescribed based upon the results of a biomechanical evaluation
- Conditioning stretches and exercises to build endurance and support (e.g. calf and plantar fascia stretches)
- Medications, administered either orally or injected
We may consider additional forms of treatment as needed. In more severe cases, if conservative treatments aren’t or wouldn’t be effective, we may need to consider surgery instead. If so, we will fully discuss all of your options with you so you can make the best-informed decision on how you want to move forward.
Don’t Let Heel Pain Halt You!
Our Ladera Ranch office is here and ready to help you with heel pain, as well as a host of other foot and ankle conditions.