Plantar fasciitis is one of the most common injuries in runners, recreational and competitive alike. Although it can be frustrating to experience, there is good news for plantar fasciitis sufferers: it gets better! This frustration is perhaps best illustrated by the bumper sticker available at the Ragged Mountain Running Shop that reads, “I survived plantar fasciitis!” Mark and Cynthia don’t dispense stickers proclaiming the survival of stress fractures or runner’s knee. Perhaps the mystery regarding the healing of these injuries are more widely understood. Implementing a comprehensive approach to plantar fasciitis will help ensure a more speedy recovery and return to full training.
The plantar fascia is a broad band of tissue that starts at the heel, then widens as it extends through the foot to attach near the toes. The fascia supports the arch and foot musculature. The fascia is most commonly injured near its insertion at the heel. There are good reasons for this: the fascia is stressed with impact loading at every heel strike, then is stretched as we go through the gait cycle. The area near the heel also has less blood supply than other regions, thus limiting its healing capacity. Pain occurs on the bottom of the foot near the heel and is particularly noticeable first thing in the morning as well as during and after running. As symptoms worsen, the runner may also have pain after sitting for a long period of time or sometimes with every step! The term fasciitis is perhaps a bit of a misnomer as it implies that inflammation is the cause. Inflammation is just part of the package. In addition to inflammation, scar tissue and even tearing can occur. This explains why anti-inflammatories alone rarely prove curative.
Treatment includes measures to control pain and inflammation, minimize overload forces, and to promote tissue healing. Proper shoe wear is essential. Anti-inflammatories are useful (as long as there is no reason not to take them ie allergies to anti-inflammatories or aspirin, pregnancy, or if you have a history of stomach ulcers, or kidney or liver disease). In chronic or especially painful cases, I may prescribe a short course of oral steroids first. Stretching of the calf muscles and plantar fascia is performed. Remember to perform the calf stretch with the knee bent as well as straight as these 2 positions emphasize different muscles. The fascia is stretched by extending the toes against a wall or the floor. Strengthening the foot and ankle muscles is important. Useful exercises include towel scrunches, picking up marbles, and “short foot” exercises, where the runner stands on one foot while maintaining the arch of the foot. Several devices are marketed to assist with plantar fasciitis. I have found good success recommending the counterforce arch brace designed by my sportsmedicine mentor, Robert Nirschl, MD, MS and available through running shops or direct from Medical Sports, Inc. Other useful devices include gel heel cushions and over the counter orthotics. If symptoms persist beyond 6 weeks of this level of treatment, formal physical therapy can be useful to apply modalities such as iontophoresis (delivering anti-inflammatory medication with an electric stimulator) or ultrasound, manual therapy to ensure proper joint motion, and expanding one’s exercise regimen. A night splint designed to apply a light stretch while sleeping can be useful. In select instances, custom orthotics may be indicated to control specific biomechanical contributors. In longterm or particularly painful cases, steroid injections can be applied to help facilitate the rehab process. Since steroid serves only to control inflammation, injections should not be viewed as treatment in and of themselves. Additionally, since steroids can potentially weaken the local tissues, I recommend refraining from running for 10-14 days after this type of injection.
In rare instances, surgery may be indicated, but is recommended only after the runner has failed to respond to the conservative treatment for several months. Alternative therapies also exist: shock wave therapy, magnets, and accupuncture. Although these may prove to be more useful, we simply have limited experience and research regarding these treatments. They can also be costly, and therefore are not as widely used.
There are other, less common causes of heel pain in runners including a bruised heel pad, stress fracture and nerve entrapments. Imaging studies such as xrays, bone scan, or MRI and nerve testing may be recommended if the runner is not responding to treatment or if initial presentation suggests a different cause.
Most runners may continue to train while plantar fasciitis is being treated, as long as the pain is considered mild and is not forcing a change in the gait. If pain is more than mild, back things down a level. Don’t run, however, if pain forces you to limp or change your gait. If you have to alter your training schedule, substitute cross training to maintain fitness. I recommend water running, the elliptical, or biking. Train at similar intensities and durations that you would for your land training.
Be patient, yet diligent with the rehabilitation program. And once resolved, you can proudly display that sticker!