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 under the sole of the foot (plantar area) are associated with inflammation of the plantar fascia (fasciitis), the "bowstring-like" tissue stretching underneath the sole that attaches at the heel. Plantar heel spurs cause localized tenderness and pain made worse when stepping down on the heel. Heel spurs and plantar fasciitis can occur alone or be related to underlying diseases that cause arthritis (inflammation of the joints), such as reactive arthritis (formerly called Reiter's disease), ankylosing spondylitis, and diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis. It is important to note that heel spurs may cause no symptoms at all and may be incidentally discovered during X-ray exams taken for other purposes.
Pain and discomfort associated with heel spurs does not occur from the spur itself. The bone growth itself has no feeling. However, as you move, this growth digs into sensitive nerves and tissue along the heel of the foot, resulting in severe pain. Pain can also be generated when pushing off with the toes while walking. Swelling along the heel is also common.
The diagnosis of heel pain and heel spurs is made by a through history of the course of the condition and by physical exam. Weight bearing x-rays are useful in determining if a heel spur is present and to rule out rare causes of heel pain such as a stress fracture of the heel bone, the presence of bone tumors or evidence of soft tissue damage caused by certain connective tissue disorders.
Non Surgical Treatment
To aid in the reduction of inflammation, applying ice for 10-15 minutes after activities and the use of anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can be helpful. Corticosteroid injections may also be used to reduce pain and inflammation. Physical therapy can be beneficial with the use of heat modalities, such as ultrasound, that create a deep heat and reduce inflammation. If the pain caused by inflammation is constant, keeping the foot raised above the heart and/or compressed by wrapping with a bandage will help. Taping can help speed the healing process by protecting the fascia from reinjury, especially during stretching and walking.
In a small number of cases (usually less than 5 percent), patients may not experience relief after trying the recommendations listed above. It is important that conservative treatments (such as those listed above) be performed for AT LEAST a year before considering surgery. Time is important in curing the pain from heel spurs, and insufficient treatment before surgery may subject you to potential complications from the procedure. If these treatments fail, your doctor may consider an operation to loosen the plantar fascia, called a plantar fascia release.