Heel pain affects the back or underside of the heel, often producing a sharp pinching or dull ache. Although heel pain is unlikely to be a symptom of a serious condition, it can get in the way of enjoying normal, everyday activities. Because we use our feet a lot, this kind of pain tends to be consistently distracting, if not debilitating. For this reason, it is important to identify the causes of heel pain in a timely matter.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a common autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack its own, healthy tissues. This condition affects joints but can also cause painful skin and eyes, and lead to problems with the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Without treatment or improvement, arthritis can damage the lining of joints, causing painful swelling and deformities. Because rheumatoid arthritis affects smaller joints before impacting larger joints such as the heel, it is likely people with arthritis-based heel pain already know they have this condition.
A stress fracture is a small break or cracks in a bone. Caused by falls and overuse, such as long-distance running, the injuries often affect the feet and legs, since they carry the weight of the whole body. People most at risk are athletes and those with weakened bones. Few people notice stress fractures at first, but tenderness around the injury increases over time and often accompanies swelling. Although most small fractures heal with time and rest, some stress fractures fail to repair themselves and cause chronic pain. A doctor will confirm a stress fracture diagnosis by taking an x-ray of the bone.
Sarcoidosis is the growth of small cells or granulomas. Scientists are not certain what causes this condition, although they believe there is a link to allergic reactions and immune responses. Symptoms of sarcoidosis are variable and depend on where the granulomas develop. Areas often affected include the lungs, eyes, lymph, and skin. If the condition affects the skin around the ankle, this could cause heel pain. Other signs usually accompany this symptom, such as red bumps on the skin. A doctor can diagnose sarcoidosis and recommend treatments. Although there is no cure, the condition often goes away over time.
Plantar fasciitis is a common cause of heel pain. Many people with this condition describe it as a sharp, stabbing pain that is worse in the morning when they start to move and walk about. After walking for a few minutes, most find the pain decreases but will increase with exertion. The risk of developing plantar fasciitis is higher for runners, those who are obese, and people who wear shoes lacking proper support. Stress on a band of tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes causes the condition, either because it leads to excess pressure or overuse and subsequently, inflammation. Treatment involves rest, supportive insoles, and reaching or maintaining a healthy weight.
The peripheral nervous system links the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. Injury or disease damage to this essential nerve can cause pain and weakness. Many people experience tingling or burning sensations, as well. These symptoms stem from the degradation of signals from the brain to the body -- areas further away, such as these extremities, face a more significant impact.
Paget's disease causes overproduction of new bone cells, sometimes resulting in deformities. Most common in the pelvis, spine, skull, and legs, the condition can affect the heel, too. The first symptom is bone pain, possibly limited to the heel, or widespread across the body. Because there is a strong genetic link, Paget's disease often runs in families. The condition worsens over time and can cause hearing loss, broken bones, and nerve damage.
Osteomyelitis is a bone infection that can spread from other tissues via blood vessels or start in the bone itself. Bone pain following a heel injury could be due to osteomyelitis. People with diabetes are at higher risk of this infection, especially if they are prone to ulcers. Besides heel pain, additional symptoms include fever, swelling, and fatigue.
Bursitis often impacts the hip, shoulder, and elbow, but can also affect the heel, knee, and big toe. Inflammation of small fluid sacs called bursae, which normally cushion tissues around joints, cause the condition. When the bursae become inflamed, people experience pain when moving the affected area. Those at risk include people with obesity, older adults, and people who carry out repetitive motions on a regular basis. Repetitive movements can put pressure on the bursae, which is why the condition often affects people with hobbies or professions such as playing musical instruments and gardening.
The Achilles tendon connects the heel bone to the calf muscles. It is a strong cord, but once it incurs damage, it is far more likely to sustain injury again. Breaking or injuring the Achilles tendon makes walking difficult or impossible. Sharp pain centers on the site of the injury but also affects the heel. Additional symptoms include the sensation of being kicked in the leg and a popping sound when the injury occurs. Athletic individuals commonly fall victim to this injury, but it can happen to anyone and may ultimately require surgery to repair the tendon.
Overuse of the Achilles tendon can lead to Achilles tendinitis. Runners are most often affected, particularly those who have recently increased their pace or started to run on uneven trails rather than a road or track. Another at-risk group is adults who play intense sports such as soccer, football, or basketball on an irregular basis, especially if they fail to warm up the muscles adequately. Besides heel pain, Achilles tendinitis causes aches in the calf and tenderness following the injury.
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