Heel pain (plantar fasciitis): causes & pain relief

Siski Green / 11 March 2016

Wondering why you've got sore heels? Find out why and how to fix the problem.

A change in shoes

Flip-flops can cause problems because they don’t usually provide support for your foot and they are often thin, too, meaning your heel endures more pressure with each step.

But shoes designed to support your foot and help with foot pain can also cause problems if you’ve chosen a shoe size (in terms of length or width) that doesn’t fit your foot properly. If a supportive shoe is too small, the support at the back of the heel will put excess pressure on the edge of your heel; if a supportive shoe is too big, your arch won’t be well supported and it may rub on your heel too.

Other shoes that can cause problems are flat shoes where the sole is too thin to provide any relief for your heel, and training shoes that are worn out and so aren’t protecting your heel any more. 

The solution? It’s probably best to get another pair of shoes that give you the full support you need.

Most injuries will heal after six to eight weeks if you rest properly – that means giving your heel the support it needs when you do have to walk and walking and running as little as possible so it has a chance to recover. 

Related: Foot problems and how to treat them

The way you are

If you’ve got a naturally low or high arch, your foot is unbalanced and so as you walk your feet may roll in, for example, putting extra pressure on one part of your heel.

Similarly, if you’ve worn high heels for a large proportion of your life, your feet are also more at risk of problems later. Walking in heels naturally causes you to put more of your body weight on your heels rather than the whole of your foot, and standing in heels forces the foot into an unnatural position putting excess strain on some parts of the foot too.  

The solution? Shoe inserts can make the world of difference to people who have naturally high or low arches, by providing support where you need it (the arch) which then helps prevent your foot from rolling inwards and putting extra pressure on one side of your heels.

You can also get heel inserts that help support your heel reducing pain. And those heels? Try to save them for special occasions only. 

Related: Damage limitation – how to help feet after a lifetime in high heels

An illness

Arthritis, infections and diabetes can all trigger heel pain.

Arthritis, for example, can cause pain and inflammation in any joint, including the heel.

Diabetes, which can cause damage to your nerves, can mean that you’re no longer able to feel your feet as well as you could. That can mean you walk more heavily, or even hit obstacles with your heel without realising. 

The solution? Treating the symptoms involves using heel supports and giving your body a chance to heal, but ideally you will treat the root cause – the illness itself.

So for arthritis, exercise such as swimming will help you build strong supportive muscles so that you can walk without putting so much pressure on the heel, for example.

Related: Lifestyle changes for osteoarthrits

An injury

Perhaps surprisingly, injuries to your heel aren’t usually the result of falling or hitting your heel, although that can happen, they’re more likely to be the result of stress or strain from repeated movements.

As your heel takes the brunt of force of your body weight as you walk or run, it’s under a lot of pressure. That means that most heel pain develops over time – you may not even realise you’re damaging your heel until you start to feel pain when injury has already occurred.

Plantar fasciitis, for example, can occur if you run or wear unsuitable (unsupportive) footwear. You may also develop a heal spur, which is a bony growth at the base of the heel bone. This occurs when the plantar fascia (a tendon) gets strained.

Inflammation can also occur in your heel pad, a result of the heel pad becoming too thin or wearing shoes that are flat with a thin sole. 

The solution? Ice or a cool pack on your heel will ease the pain and reduce swelling and inflammation too. You’ll need to rest your feet until the damage has been healed, which may take up to two months if you rest properly and protect your heel with shoe inserts when you do have to walk, taking care not to place all your bodyweight directly on your heel.

New footwear will help prevent the damage occurring again and you may want to adjust the way you walk or run. For example, you should try not to extend your leg too far forward from the other as this can cause you to come down on your heel with extra force. 

Related: Find out more about plantar fasciitis

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.