Plantar fasciitis issues? Think about Achilles

On a recent spring break trip to Disney World in Florida, my kids enjoyed a new Chevrolet Test Track ride at Epcot.

Having spent many years in Florida as a kid myself, I was reminded of the old General Motors pavilion that chronicled the story of human locomotion from walking to space flight. There was one particular scene of a caveman sitting down, blowing on his hot and aching foot – meant to demonstrate the hassles of prolonged walking.

Humans have been having foot problems ever since we hopped up on two feet and walked out of the jungle. If you think about it, as bipeds, our species faces the unique challenge of bearing the full weight of our body on just two feet. As our principal means of getting from place to place, simple foot care is important.

While a review of the panoply of foot diseases and conditions could fill this column for months, there is one very common foot condition where prevention and/or home therapy can make all the difference.

Have you ever hopped out of bed in the morning only to feel the sensation of hot pokers in your heel for those first few steps?

Heel pain often results from a common condition called plantar fasciitis. This refers to inflammation in a soft tissue membrane running along the sole of the foot. It is commonly related to problems with the Achilles tendon (just behind the foot) and can present with pain in the tendon itself, the heel or the entire lower surface of the foot.

There are several risk factors for plantar fasciitis, including prolonged standing and/or walking. As a former professional dancer, my wife is quite familiar with this problem. Wearing high heels is another risk factor, although paradoxically this can sometimes alleviate discomfort in the short term while contributing to the problem in the long term.

The problem relates in part to inadequate stretching of the Achilles tendon. Knowing this can help control the condition and prevent its recurrence.

Try a few stretching exercises.

With your hands against the wall and the affected foot behind you, gradually bend forward with the affected leg straight. This will stretch the Achilles tendon.

Another common exercise to help plantar fasciitis involves a similar stance with your hands against the wall and the affected foot behind you but this time with the knee bent. Gradually lean forward until your heel lifts off the floor. This stretches the plantar fascia itself.

Repeat these stretching exercises 2-3 times daily and you should notice a benefit within days to a couple of weeks. If pain is severe, interferes with employment, or fails to improve with home exercises, a visit to the podiatrist may be in order.

Evaluation can exclude other less common problems and permit a discussion of other treatment options, including formal physical therapy, foot splints for nighttime use, shoe inserts, or even a steroid injection in the heel.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.

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