If you would have asked me ten years ago whether I knew what Plantar Fasciitis, Achilles Tendonitis, pronation, Heel Spurs and orthotics were I would have stared blankly, paused for a brief moment and said – “ah no”? Today it's a different story. Fortunately or unfortunately, I'm more than well aware of what they are. Why? Because over the past five years I, like many other people in their prime, have suffered from nagging heel pain or, in my particular case, the more medically correct terms Achilles Tendonitis and Bursitis.
How did I get you pain pain? Well, in retrospect, it was not just a sudden sunset of pain that I felt. It had been progressing slowly but certainly over a number of years. However, I remember only too well those initial twinges beginning to take grip about five years ago when I reached my mid forties.
You see, like many people, I used to drive my car to the nearest train station, walk from the car to the platform, travel to work by train, walk on hard concrete pavements to my place of work, walk around on those same hard surfaces through the day up and down the city visiting clients and doing business, going for a lunch time “health walk” (yes you've guessed it) up and back along those pavements and in the evenings going home by the same route as I did coming in. This was five days a week, 48 weeks a year over many years. I did all of this in hard heeled business shoes and not in shock absorbing walking or running shoes. I kept this routine up in day out without any visible signs of heel pain.
When I first noticed that things were not quite right in the foot department I recall feeling a mild stiffness at the back of my lower legs and rear of my right foot. It did not worry me too much to begin with and I just waited for it to pass thinking that it was simply a transient discomfort. Waiting I did but pass it did not. In fact the condition started to worsen to the point where the stiffness turned into a slim limp and eventually a hobble. Not content with plateauing there, the heel of my left foot began to ache as well. This made walking a sometimes slow and painful chore. It was at this point that I decided to consult my family doctor about the problem. He advised me to apply an anti-inflammatory gel or cream to help relieve the pain and suggested I inquire about using orthotic shoe inserts to assist with heel lift when walking. I followed the doctor's advice and felt a slight improvement from using the orthotics. The anti-inflammatory gel did not seem to make any difference no matter how often I applied it.
This left me wondering what else could have done to further improve the condition. I therefore decided to undertake my own research of heel pain: what it is, its causes, who it affects, available treatments and potential cures, if any. This involved burning the midnight oil over many nights reading books, wading through journals and conducting lots of Internet searches. Some of the material I uncovered was useful, some was not. Ultimately, I had to sift the information and decide what the good advice was. More importantly I needed to establish what would work best for me. I therefore tried to “cherry pick” the bits of advice and tips that I felt would give me the best possible chance of remediation.
Now, I should say at this point, that understanding what needs to be done to rehabilitate oneself is one thing. Putting that knowledge into practice can be quite another. Why is that? Well, while we are all filled with good intentions, we're still human. We sometimes lack the self discipline and persistence to set things in train and see them through. Work distractions, family distractions, social distractions can all have a habit of chipping away at your resolve. I do not mind admitting that I had a number of false starts to begin with. Then, after the pain worsened even further, I determined that enough was enough. I was not going to suffer in silence and tolerate it anymore. It was time to “bite the bullet” if I was really serious about turning my heel pain around so that “I” and not “It” dictated my life.
So, with resolve, I eventually put into practice what I had learned. I was determined to start my days on the right footing (pardon the pun) by not jumping straight out of bed in the mornings and onto a hard floor. Instead I firstly began sitting on the side of the bed after waking and doing around a dozen or so foot flexes. This leads moving both feet up and down using the ankles as the pivot point. Once completed I would then rise up on both feet and begin to slowly walk around until the initial morning tightness and stiffness felt at the back of the heel and calves had subsided. A little later in the morning I would then begin a series of foot exercises including calf muscle and hamstring stretching. I repeated these periodically through the day using a range of techniques and variations so that exercising did not become boring and therefore a chore to do. The last thing you need is a reason to forget about your routine or put things “on the back burner”. They just will not get done.
Oh, and of course I always – and I mean ALWAYS ensure that I wear proper fitting orthotic inserts in all of my walking shoes and joggers. For first time users, the feeling of an orthotic inside your shoe may seem a little unusual and may take a little while to get used to. From my experience, they are well worth any initial awkward feeling and, when used in conjunction with an appropriate exercise regime, can make a noticeable improvement to your walking and overall gait. Orthotics can help to correct over-pronation, reduce the effects of Plantar Fasciitis and improve heel stress. The trick with orthotics is to make sure you use them in footwear every day and not every so often. This way you're giving them time to do their job and not constantly having to adapt to a different heel lift when changing shoes.
I, like most people reading this article, belong to an affluent society in a developed country where aging populations, growing levels of obesity, the love of sports and a preoccupation with fitness are all prevalent. I know that some of these factors apply to me. That does not mean though that we should just simply accept the fact that heel pain will affect many of us, put it down to growing older or putting on some beef and do nothing about it. On the contrary, there are a number of things we can do as individuals to not be part of the statistical majority who suffer in silence. My ten tips to reclaim your walking life are:
- Accept that you have a problem
- Seek proper medical advice and have your condition properly assessed
- Devise an exercise statute that suits you – focusing on regular stretching of the Plantar fascia and Achilles Tendon
- Wear comfortable properly fitting shoes with suitable orthotic innersoles
- Take time to rest and heal (the body needs time to mend itself)
- Apply ice packs to the affected areas of the foot in order to reduce swelling
- Consider using anti-inflammatory medications
- Shed some pounds if you are overweight (reduce the stress on your skeleton)
- If pain is persistent consider cortisone injections or shockwave therapy
- Use surgery only as a last resort
Like many things that go wrong with the human body, early intervention is often the key to successful treatment. If you feel a twinge around the foot area that does not seem normal do not ignore it. Have it checked out by a doctor or podiatrist to determine whether you have a muscular or structural problem. If addressed early enough it may be possible to prevent your heel pain from becoming debilitating and interfering with your daily pattern. Discuss and agree a plan of action with your medical practitioner so that you know exactly what to do to tackle the problem before it takes hold.
I still want to be actively running around when I have grandkids and not pass up opportunities to participate fully in life just because my boots let me down. Life's far too short.