Your foot has been acting up lately, causing sharp & aching pains in the heel whenever you stand, walk, and even sleep. You may think you have plantar fasciitis, but what if it’s a heel spur? How will you be able to tell the difference?
Plantar fasciitis (PF) and heel spurs are two of the most common foot conditions, affecting people from all walks of life. And though they share similar symptoms, triggers, and even treatment paths, they’re fundamentally different issues and should be treated as such.
We'll delve into the specifics of plantar fasciitis versus heel spurs, comparing their causes, symptoms, diagnostic methods, and treatment options. Let's take a step towards better foot health together.
What is Plantar Fasciitis?
Plantar fasciitis is a common foot condition that’s characterized by inflammation of the plantar fascia, a thick band of tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes. This band supports the foot's arch and plays a key role in standing, walking, running, and jumping.
The inflammation is typically triggered by excessive strain or pressure on plantar fascia; many people compare the pain to “walking on knives.” The symptoms usually begin immediately after waking up or prolonged periods of standing. If left unchecked, it can cause debilitating pain and negatively impact your quality of life.
Causes of PF
Plantar fasciitis is most common in active individuals who exert significant stress on the foot, particularly the heel. If you run or jump regularly, whether it be for sport or hobby, you’re at an increased risk of developing the condition.
However, anyone who spends long hours on their feet, like nurses or retail workers, are also susceptible to developing PF. Especially on a hard surface, your plantar fascia is forced to support your body weight for 8-10 hours at a time, far longer than it’s meant to. This is especially the case if you lack proper footwear; shoes with thin soles and little arch support are arguably the greatest risk factor for plantar fasciitis.
Factors like old age, obesity, and foot mechanics (flat feet or high arches) can also play a role. The condition has become so common now that one in every 10 people will experience PF-related pain & symptoms at some point during their lifetime, far more than any other foot condition.
Symptoms & Diagnosis
Though pain levels will vary between individuals, PF is usually characterized by a sharp, stabbing pain towards the heel of the foot. Symptoms tend to gradually appear & worsen over the period of a few days, and usually are the most severe after first waking up or long periods of rest. If the condition is a result of running, jumping, or another form of exercise, you can also expect higher pain levels immediately after these types of activities.
Plantar fasciitis is usually a straightforward diagnosis. A doctor will examine the bottom of your foot, checking for areas of tenderness. They may also rule out other possibilities with X-rays or MRIs, as stress fractures & nerve problems present similar symptoms. If you think you might have PF, you should visit a doctor or other medical professional ASAP – an early diagnosis will enable a faster, safer recovery.
Treatment Options & Preventive Measures
As much pain as you may be in right now, you can breathe a sigh of relief – plantar fasciitis is easily treatable. The first step to recovery is rest & ice, which will reduce inflammation and provide a bit of immediate relief. From there, you’ll progress into stretching & strengthening exercises that train the plantar fascia & surrounding muscles to handle the stress. The most important thing to avoid with PF is any activity that places undue stress on the foot.
For many people, switching to comfortable, supportive footwear can be enough to treat your PF symptoms. And if you’ve never had the condition, the right pair of shoes will prevent you from ever developing plantar fasciitis.
In severe cases, corticosteroid injections or reparative surgery may be considered. However, these are quite rare, and are used as a last result. If you’re an ultra-marathon runner who needs to get back on their feet, or simply ignored the condition for years, these may be necessary.
What are Heel Spurs?
Heel spurs are a foot condition characterized by the development of a bony calcium deposit on the heel. They tend to occur after muscle & ligament injuries in the foot, and can even develop after a bout with PF. Ironically enough, a heel spur is your body’s response to stress & inflammation – it builds extra bone tissue in an attempt to recover.
Depending on the size & cause of the heel spur, the pain can be sharp & acute or dull & achy. The most significant pain will occur when standing on your heel, especially barefoot, as the calcium deposit will place acute pressure on the heel bone. If ignored, the size of the heel spur may continue to grow, making it impossible to walk or stand comfortably.
Causes of Heel Spurs
Heel spurs are caused by similar factors to plantar fasciitis. For example, people who engage in high-impact activities like running & jumping are at an increased risk, as are those who stand or walk for long hours. Similarly, unsupportive or poor-fitting shoes can exacerbate the pain & discomfort.
Age & obesity are also contributing factors. The padding on our feet naturally thins over time, which amplifies the pressure of the spur on the foot. And combined with added weight, the pressure is often unbearable. But the nutrition aspect is a bit more complicated than simply obesity. Because heel spurs are simply calcium deposits, the problem can be triggered & exacerbated by consuming red meats, dairy products, and processed foods, which contribute to acid buildup and inflammation.
However, there are other unique causes of heel spurs that don’t overlap with plantar fasciitis. In fact, PF can cause heel spurs, as can conditions like flat feet or high arches.
Symptoms & Diagnosis
Heel spurs tend to present as a chronic, dull pain under the heel, especially early on. However, it can progress into a sharp, jabbing discomfort over time or when standing, walking, and running. The inflammation may also cause the heel to feel warm to the touch, and you’ll likely be able to feel a small bump on the heel bone.
To diagnose a heel spur, a doctor will check your foot for obvious signs of tenderness & inflammation. They may also run imaging tests to visualize the spur and rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. If you're experiencing persistent heel pain, we recommend consulting a medical professional immediately to alleviate your pain and minimize potential damage.
How to Treat Heel Spurs
Even though it may feel like the pain may never subside, heel spurs are quite treatable. As with most orthopedic conditions, the first step is rest & ice to reduce the pain and inflammation. Because it’s a bone issue, stretching & strengthening exercises will be less effective at treating pain, though they are beneficial for overall foot health.
If you’ve traditionally worn thin, unsupportive shoes or sandals, the next step is to get rid of them. Upgrade to a pair of sneakers with ample arch support and thick soles to reduce the acute pressure on your heel. The extra cushioning & support will evenly distribute pressure across your entire foot, rather than the heel alone.
In severe cases, you may be given steroid injections or prescribed anti-inflammatory medications to reduce the size of the spur. You’ll likely also need to adjust your diet to prevent your body from dumping any more calcium at the site.
Plantar Fasciitis vs. Heel Spurs: What’s the Difference?
Plantar fasciitis and heel spurs are often mistaken for one another, primarily because they share similar symptoms. But now, it’s time to learn the difference between the two.
Causes & Risk Factors
Plantar fasciitis is caused by overuse or excessive strain on the plantar fascia. Heel spurs, on the other hand, develop over time as calcium is deposited under the heel bone, typically after a muscle, ligament, or even plantar fascia injury. Both can be triggered & exacerbated by high-impact activities (running & jumping), prolonged periods of standing & walking, and obesity. Plantar fasciitis can also be caused by foot mechanics like flat feet, high arches, and irregular gait, which are unique to PF, and don’t tend to cause heel spurs.
Symptoms & Diagnosis
It’s common for people to ask themselves: “Do I have plantar fasciitis or a heel spur?” Both conditions cause discomfort in the heel of the foot, but the symptoms are slightly different.
Let’s start with PF – the sharp, stabbing pain is most intense when waking up in the morning or after long periods of rest, as the plantar fascia tightens up while not in use. The pain associated with heel spurs is slightly duller and chronic in nature, though it can progress into a sharper pain over time or when running or jumping.
To put yourself on the safest & most efficient path to recovery, you should see a medical professional for a diagnosis. They’ll likely be able to determine which, if either, condition is causing you pain and set you up with a treatment plan. In some cases, they may take an X-ray or MRI to confirm the condition and rule out other conditions.
Plantar fasciitis is a tissue condition and heel spurs are a bone issue, so their treatments differ quite a bit. But in the initial stages of both, rest and ice are critical, as is upgrading your footwear to be more supportive & comfortable.
To treat PF, you’ll need to stretch the plantar fascia and strengthen the surrounding muscles & ligaments in the foot & lower leg. You should also shop for shoes that are specially designed for plantar fasciitis. Treatment for heel spurs, on the other hand, will likely focus on protecting your heel from further damage and limiting the growth of the calcium deposit. In many cases, custom orthotics may be prescribed to accommodate the spur. In extreme cases, surgery may be suggested to restore quality of life.
To prevent your foot pain from worsening, you should avoid self-diagnosing plantar fasciitis or a heel spur. While they share similar causes, symptoms, and treatment plans, the conditions are unique and require certain care to heal properly. If you’re experiencing constant heel pain, make sure to seek professional consultation to determine whether you have PF, heel spurs, or something else entirely. Regardless of your foot pain, though, pick yourself up a pair of foot-friendly Taos shoes to keep your feet healthy & comfortable all day long.
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