Do you experience anything like this? One day, as you get out of bed and take a few steps, you notice a sharp pain on the bottom of your foot (or both feet). It hurts, but as you move around it goes away. Over days or weeks, you notice your arch(es) hurt every time you put pressure on your foot, but you’re busy so you ignore it. Maybe take an ibuprofen. But the pain doesn’t go away. Now it hurts all the time, not just when you’re walking but even when driving. If you are a runner or fitness enthusiast, the activities you enjoy are now so painful you have to cut back or stop altogether. What is happening?
Important Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, doctor, podiatrist, or any other type of “ist”. The information presented here is based solely on my own experiences and research. Please consult your own medical professional about your specific condition.
Where you are feeling the pain is likely in the plantar fascia, a thick band of tissue that runs across the bottom of your foot and connects your heel bone to your toes. Under normal circumstances, it acts like a shock absorber, supporting the arch in your foot. If tension and stress on it become too great, small tears begin to form. Repetitive stretching and tearing then causes the fascia to become irritated and inflamed, and pain occurs.
So what causes this stress on the plantar fascia? As I described in a previous article “The Criminal vs. The Victim – Targeting the source of your muscle and joint pain” the root cause of pain is often not where we feel it. Plantar fasciitis is a perfect example of this.
Almost every day you do something that causes you to lift the front of your foot while your heel is still resting on the floor. One of the most common is simply driving a car – especially city driving, where you’re constantly on and off the gas pedal and brake. This type of foot flexing movement is generated by the lower leg muscles – not the foot itself. And when these leg muscles become tight and strained, they pull constantly on the plantar fascia, and those small tears, irritation and inflammation develop. If left untreated, heel spurs can form, which often require surgery to remove.
Other causes of tight lower leg muscles (including the calves and those on the sides of the legs that connect to the shins) include high impact activities like running or aerobics without sufficiently supportive shoes; wearing high heels; excessive weight; and occupations involving standing all day on hard surfaces.
The usual response to plantar fasciitis is to treat the symptoms: expensive custom orthotics, arch supports, gel heel cups, and other devices. While these may temporarily relieve the pain, they never address the true source of the problem – those tight lower leg muscles.
An Easy Treatment Strategy That Works
The answer to plantar fasciitis is to relax and release the tightness, and increase the flexibility of the lower leg muscles, combined with treating the inflammation of the plantar fascia.
There are several options for tools you can use to perform this treatment; my favorites are a tennis ball, massage ball, or lacrosse ball. TriggerPoint Therapies also makes several tools designed specifically for this purpose. Find them in just about any running specialty store or online.
Perform these steps while placing your leg on a firm surface, such as the floor or a hard chair.
- Slowly roll the ball along the front of your leg, just to the outside of the shin bone, from below the knee to above the ankle.
- Place the ball beneath your lower calf muscle, just above your ankle, and slowly roll it back and forth.
- Move the ball to the upper portion of your calf muscle and repeat the slow rolling process.
This process is going to hurt – but you’ll be slowly breaking up the knots (adhesions) that have formed in the muscles, allowing the fibers to lengthen and loosen. Repeat this once or twice per day, accompanied by icing the bottom of the foot where the pain is greatest, to help reduce the inflammation.
While you’re healing, avoid high-impact activities, wear lower-heeled shoes, and if you stand for much of your day, take sit-breaks every hour to take the load off your feet. Quality over-the-counter orthotics can also help relieve the day-to-day pain while you’re treating the root cause as well.
This technique has definitely worked for me in the past – I hope it helps you too!
Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). She works with clients one-on-one at their location to help them live healthy and active lives, and achieve their unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.