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 are common in patients who have a history of foot pain caused by plantar fasciitis.
These bony protrusions are commonly found in association with a condition called Plantar Fasciitis. Plantar Fasciitis occurs when the plantar fascia ligament, which spans the arch of the foot, becomes stressed, torn and inflamed. Misalignment and excessive movement of the plantar fascia ligament is most typically the result of an abnormal walking gait. The ligament is designed to stretch with the bounce of each step you take, but if it stretches too much, the resulting small tears and inflammation can cause mild to extreme discomfort. At the same time, it is believed that heel spurs are formed as the body attempts to provide some additional support to the over-stretched ligament. In other words, calcium builds up as a prop to the plantar fascia.
The vast majority of people who have heel spurs feel the asscociated pain during their first steps in the morning. The pain is quite intense and felt either the bottom or front of the heel bone. Typically, the sharp pain diminishes after being up for a while but continues as a dull ache. The pain characteristically returns when first standing up after sitting for long periods.
A heel spur is often seen on X-ray as a bony protrusion, which can vary in size. However, because a Heel Spur only indicates increased load on the plantar fascia, and not pain, an ultra sound may be required to assess other actual cause of the heel pain such and may include checking to see if the plantar fascia is inflamed or degenerated.
Non Surgical Treatment
The majority of heel spurs are treated with non-surgical interventions. These can relieve pain, but may take from about 3 months to up to a year for symptoms to resolve. Rest, icing, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory or prescription medications can help ease symptoms. Cortisone injections may also be used. Physical therapists may instruct you to perform stretching exercises to help relax the tissues in the heel. Your doctor may recommend custom orthotics or shoe inserts to position and cushion your heel. Night splints can help position the heel and arch of the foot while you sleep. Some doctors may recommend extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT). This treatment uses energy pulses to start the repair process in the heel tissues. ESWT is recommend when other non-surgical treatments have failed.
Surgery, which is a more radical treatment, can be a permanent correction to remove the spur itself. If your doctor believes that surgery is indicated, he will recommend an operation - but only after establishing that less drastic methods of treatment are not successful.