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What Are Heel Spurs?

Overview

When you have heel pain, it’s a common assumption that it’s caused by a heel spur. A heel spur is a foot condition that’s created by a bony-like growth called a calcium deposit that extends between your heel bone and arch. Heel spurs often start in the front of your heel and eventually affect other parts of your foot. They are normally about a quarter of an inch in length, so they may not necessarily be visible to the naked eye.

Detecting heel spurs can be challenging. Heel spurs don’t always cause pain, and not all heel pain is related to spurs. Keep reading to learn more about heel spurs, and talk to your doctor if you have any heel pain that doesn’t go away or gets worse over time.

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Symptoms

Heel spur symptoms

Symptoms of heel spurs may include pain, inflammation, and swelling at the front of your heel. The affected area may also feel warm to the touch. The symptoms may spread to the arch of your foot. Eventually, a small bony protrusion may be visible.

Some heel spurs may cause no symptoms at all. About 50 percent of people with heel spurs experience pain from them. You may also not see any changes in soft tissues or bones surrounding the heel. Heel spurs are often discovered only through X-rays and other tests done for another foot ailment.

It’s difficult to diagnose a heel spur on your own. This is because the symptoms are similar to other forms of heel pain and foot problems. You’ll need to see a specialist, such as orthopedic surgeon or a podiatrist, for a proper diagnosis. Your orthopedic surgeon or podiatrist can then detect a heel spur through an X-ray.

Pictures

Heel spur pictures

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Causes

What causes heel spurs?

Heel spurs are directly caused by long-term muscle and ligament strain. Eventually, this excessive strain stretches soft tissues in your heel and wears them out.

Heel spurs develop over time — they don’t suddenly appear after a workout or a sports event. Heel spurs tend to occur when you ignore early symptoms like heel pain. Repetitive stress from walking, running, or jumping on hard surfaces is a common cause of heel spurs. They may also develop from wearing shoes that don’t support your foot.

Heel spurs may also be caused by:

  • arthritis
  • bruising of the heel
  • excess body weight
  • poorly fitted shoes
  • walking gait issues
  • wearing flip-flops too often
  • worn-out shoes

According to the Mayo Clinic, more than half of all cases of heel spurs occur in people who also have plantar fasciitis. This painful condition deals with the tough, fibrous tissue that runs between your heel and toes. Having plantar fasciitis increases your risk for eventually developing heel spurs.

Read more: Plantar fasciitis stretches to soothe heel pain »

Heel spur vs. plantar fasciitis

Q&A: Heel spur vs. plantar fasciitis

  • What’s the difference between heel spurs and plantar fasciitis?
  • There is a distinct difference between a heel spur and plantar fasciitis, but the two are closely related. A heel spur is a bony projection that occurs from the bottom of the heel along the course of the plantar fascia. It will vary in size but is usually not larger than half an inch. A heel spur may have no symptoms associated with it and is often picked up on an X-ray.

    Plantar fasciitis is a painful condition in which there is an inflammatory process occurring where the plantar fasciitis attaches to the heel. This occurs because of an abnormal force being placed on it. Things that can cause an abnormal force are excessive weight, overuse, or wearing shoes without a supporting arch.

    As a general rule, plantar fasciitis will subside on its own over a period of time regardless of the treatment. A heel spur will be there permanently, unless surgery is required. Fortunately, surgery is rarely needed.

    - William Morrison, MD
  • Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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Treatment

Heel spur treatment

Treatment options for heel spurs can include one or more of the following:

  • Cold compresses. Using ice packs after exercising and walking may be especially helpful.
  • Injections of anti-inflammatory medications. These help to ease both pain and inflammation throughout the heel and arch of the foot.
  • Over-the-counter pain medications. These may include acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).
  • Physical therapy exercises and stretching exercises. These can be performed at any time of the day, but stretches can be especially helpful at night before bedtime.
  • Rest. It’s especially important to rest the feet after long periods of standing and other activities.
  • Orthotic shoe inserts. These can help give you arch support.

Read more: Heel spur treatment and home remedies »

Your orthopedic surgeon or podiatrist may recommend surgery as a last resort. This type of surgery involves the removal of the heel spur. Sometimes it also involves releasing the plantar fascia muscle.

Heel spur surgery not only reduces pain, but it’s also aimed at boosting mobility in the overall foot. Most people who have this type of surgery also have plantar fasciitis. Due to other forms of treatments and therapies available, surgery is not common for heel spurs.

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Prevention

How to prevent heel spurs

Preventing heel spurs requires an increased attention to your overall foot health. Be mindful of the everyday stresses you place on your feet and be sure to give them a rest at the end of the day.

Tips for preventing heel spurs

  1. Avoid repetitive activities. Make sure you mix up your workouts and athletic pursuits.
  2. Warm up before exercising.
  3. Wear different shoes every day to prevent unnecessary stress on your feet.
  4. Wear the right shoes for your feet. Your shoes should offer plenty of support and shock absorption.
  5. Choose proper shoes for the activity you’re doing. For example, you may need cross-training shoes for aerobic exercise and running shoes for jogging.
  6. Avoid wearing heels and other shoes that place stress on your feet.
  7. Lose weight if advised by your doctor to do so. This will help ease unnecessary strain and pressure on your feet.

As a rule of thumb, you should never push through any heel pain that develops. Continuing to walk, exercise, or wear shoes that cause heel pain can lead to long-term issues such as heel spurs. If you experience heel pain after any activity, ice the area and give your foot a rest until it gets better.

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