I can’t tell you how many times patients hobble into my office complaining of a stabbing, miserable pain in their heel. Maybe you’re experiencing the same. When you get out of bed in the morning, the pain zings like an arrow through your heel. It can even knock you off your balance. The rest of the day you limp around trying not to put pressure on your heel to avoid getting zapped again. If you have to walk a lot during the day, forget it, that heel pain makes you miserable all day.
These, my friends, are classic symptoms of what orthopedists (bone doctors) and podiatrists (foot doctors) call osteophytes. You’ve likely heard of them by their common name, heel spurs. They’re what I want to talk to you about – how to prevent them and what you can do to relieve the pain if you get one.
Heel Spurs: They Spell Inflammation
Heel spurs are little outgrowths of bone that develop from repeated stress to the area where they originate. People who do surface contact type exercise – where your feet repeatedly impact a hard surface – like running, walking, jumping, can develop heel spurs. They’re more common once you pass age 40.
The tendons, fascia and ligaments in the bottom of your foot rub against the heel bone as they are being continually stretched during exercise. These tissues can become inflamed from the repetitive movement, especially if you haven’t stretched sufficiently to loosen and warm up your muscles before exercise.
As a protective measure, your body sends extra calcium to your heel bones to thicken it. Sometimes there’s too much thickening and a little bump or “hang nail” sliver of bone protrudes. When you try to get out of bed in the morning, or stand after sitting for a while, you put pressure on these protrusions. In turn, they can push into already inflamed tendons and fascia. The pain that results in your heel can be quite sharp. It can even literally knock you off your feet as you can lose your balance trying to protect your heel from pain.
These bony spurs don’t just affect your heels. They can occur in your spine, knee, shoulder, and other joints. They can be diagnosed with x-rays or MRI’s but a skilled podiatrist or orthopedist can often diagnose a spur just by your symptoms and your classic “heel spur” limp.
But what really causes the pain from these spurs is the inflammation of tissues surrounding it. The real answer to reducing the pain from spurs is to address the underlying inflammation.
What Helps Relieve Heel Spur Pain?
For starters, you can always take over the counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). But, these are only meant for short term use. Longer than that and NSAID side-effects can start to crop up. Heel (and other) spurs take a while for your body to wear them down and re-absorb them. So, using an anti-inflammatory only meant for short term use doesn’t quite get the job done.
That’s why I recommend turmeric to my patients. It’s one of the most powerful anti-inflammatories that Nature makes. It’s also been shown in studies to work as well as over-the-counter, and prescription, anti-inflammatory medications. Better still, turmeric can be used longer than traditional NSAIDs without side effects.
Here are some other things I recommend to both prevent and heal the pain of heel spurs:
1. Stretching. Heel tendons, fascia and ligaments became inflamed because you likely didn’t take time to stretch and warm these tissues before exercising. And if you repetitively do that exercise several times a week, pretty soon your heel bones are going to start feeling the pain of heel spurs. Be sure to stretch all the muscles and tissues of your feet, especially the Achilles and plantar fascia (bottom of your foot) completely for about 5-10 minutes before engaging in surface-impact exercise. Stretching can also help decrease pain before standing as well. Be sure to drink enough water as dry tissues are more prone to becoming inflamed with activity.
2. Support. You may not realize how badly your shoes are worn until your heels start hurting. Proper sole depth cushions the bottoms of your heels from repeated surface strikes. In addition to getting new athletic shoes for exercise, you’ll also want to get a pair of good support open-back athletic shoes to use as slippers while healing your heel spur. Slip them on before standing in the morning to help reduce pain and assist your balance.
In addition, you can buy extra heel/foot support orthotics to put inside your shoes to offer extra cushioning and protection. Your local pharmacy usually sells these.
3. Icing. If you get a spur, icing it frequently can help cool inflammation and lessen pain. Fill an empty 2 liter cylindrical bottle with water and freeze it. Sit in a comfortable chair and place the bottle beneath your affected foot. Roll the bottle out in front of you and back, keeping it beneath your foot at all times. This also helps stretch tight tissues as well.
4. Natural anti-inflammatories. As I mentioned above, turmeric works as well as OTC anti-inflammatories. Take two 400 mg capsules twice a day with meals. Bromelain and ginger also work well as anti-inflammatory nutrients. Take 1 500 mg capsule daily. Topical anti-inflammatory creams like Blue Emu, Tiger Balm, Aspercreme in small amounts reduce pain.
5. Switch Exercise Routine. You’ll want to stop the repeated surface strike exercise until the spur heals. Switch to spinning, rowing, swimming, yoga, which don’t require landing on your foot/heel. Still be sure to stretch completely before exercising.
Heel spurs are no fun, I know, but they’ll eventually heel. Remembering to stretch well before exercise, replace worn out shoes, stay hydrated, and switch up your exercise routines, will go a long way to both healing an existing spur and prevent another one developing in your other heel.
Mark Bromson, M.D.
Bone Spurs, http://www.medicinenet.com/bone_spurs/page2.htm#what_are_symptoms_of_bone_spurs
Bone Spurs, http://www.foot.com/site/foot-conditions/heel-spurs