You swing your feet over the side of the bed, stand up, and ow!
What is that pain in your heel that and why do you suddenly feel like crawling isn’t such a bad option for getting around? You gingerly step down again and you can still feel it, a sharp, stabbing pain deep inside your foot.
A quick Google search offers a diagnosis: plantar fasciitis. You read that it’s inflammation of your plantar fascia, the thick band of tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes. When it’s under too much stress, it develops small tears and irritation. The pain usually goes away once you get up and start moving, but according to the internet, ignoring plantar fasciitis can lead to chronic, debilitating pain and other foot, knee, hip, or back problems.
So what can you do to alleviate and prevent it?
Sure, Dr. Internet is great. But you really should have your primary care doctor check you out, too. It’s wise to rule out any other health or structural issues that can cause foot pain.
Plantar fasciitis is a condition of both overuse and an underuse, and contrary to what a lot of the internet will tell you, doesn’t involve much, if any, inflammation.
It’s often found in people who run or do other types of repetitive foot movements. If you run a lot, incorporating foot and calf stretches into your normal warm up and cool down routines can help prevent the development of foot pain.
It’s also fairly common in people who stand most of the day without moving much and/or wear shoes that don’t give the right kind of support. That’s what happened to me, when I was working as a chemist. You see, the lab I worked in was set up so that each piece of equipment needed by each chemist was literally only a few steps away from the others. About 10-15 steps would take you from one end of your workspace to the other. While I worked there, at least half of the full time chemists developed plantar fasciitis. One colleague had such painful plantar fasciitis that she had to walk on the sides of her feet, which will cause a whole host of other problems. Please don’t let yours get that bad.
As my doctor explained, and I later learned in massage school, our bodies are meant to move. When your body, or part of it, doesn’t move enough, it stops functioning optimally. If you don’t do anything about that, it goes into full on dysfunction such as plantar fasciitis. It’s also meant to move in varied ways, so if you use it the same way over and over and over, you end up with a similar dysfunction.
Plantar fasciitis is felt most often first thing in the morning because the plantar fascia tends to tighten when you are at rest. When it’s really bad, simply sitting down for a couple minutes will result in pain when you stand back up.
If you’re suffering from heel pain, general wisdom says you should try these stretches in the morning before doing anything else:
You can do these same stretches throughout the day when it’s possible to take your shoes off, such as after work, before exercising, or before bed. During these stretches you should feel some pulling, but not pain. Stop and take a break or stretch more gently if it does begin to hurt.
I’m going to be honest, most of those stretches didn’t help my plantar fasciitis, but they have helped several people I know so I’ve included them because everyone’s different and they might be just what you need. What helped me the most were new shoes, myofascial release (MFR), and getting a new job where I was able to move more. I’ll get to those first two in bit. But first…
Massage is relaxing even under the best circumstances, so there’ no wonder it’s ideal for soothing sore muscles and tissues when you’ve strained something! In fact, some studies have found that massage combined with stretching works better at treating plantar fasciitis than other medical treatments.
If you’re suffering from heel pain, massage by an expert may help. A massage therapist who understands all of the muscle groups in your legs and feet and how they connect will know how to massage your tissues and release the tension that’s causing your pain.
Alternatively, you can do a simple massage at home. Start by warming your foot tissues with a hot bath, shower, or foot soak to loosen them up. With a little bit of lotion or massage oil on your hands, massage your foot along its full length from heel to toes with medium to firm pressure. Then switch to massaging across the width of your foot. Go back and forth in these two directions for about two minutes on each foot. Finish by applying ice to each foot for about 15 minutes.
Whether you see a professional or do it yourself, massage increases blood circulation and reduces tightness in your plantar fascia. Better circulation allows your tired muscles to get the oxygen and nutrients they need to feel strong again. All of this promotes healing and helps those tissues be more limber and ready for action so they don’t sustain more damage as you go about your day.
When I first had MFR, my feet were in such bad shape that merely sitting down for a couple minutes would cause me pain when I’d stand back up. At the time, I was in massage school and neither massage nor reflexology had helped. So, when we got to the segment on MFR my expectations were low. Imagine my surprise when, after lying down for an hour, I got up off the table and had zero foot pain.
After that, I paid someone who actually knew what they were doing – i.e. was not currently a student in massage school just learning the technique – to do more MFR on my feet. It took a few sessions, but I was eventually able to get out of bed in the morning and not have pain in my feet. I needed a couple booster sessions that first year, but haven’t had a trace of the plantar fasciitis since. That was 2002.
You may be wondering what this myofascial release feels like and that’s a fair question. Quite simply it’s a very gentle and relaxing form of bodywork that tends to feel as if not much is happening… Until you try to do the painful thing that brought you in. Then you realize it did a lot more than you thought.
If you’re the type who wants to feel beat up during and after a session you’ll probably hate it. However, if you enjoy not being in pain and being able to walk pain free first thing in the morning, you can probably learn to tolerate it.
I can’t tell you exactly how it works, because we don’t really know. For good or bad, the things we thought we knew about it have since been proven wrong by research. What we do know is that it affects the nervous system – remember what I said about it being deeply relaxing – and that it turns down the volume on the sympathetic nervous system (aka the stress response) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (aka the relaxation response). We also know that the body has the ability to heal itself when it’s in a resting state like sleep or deep relaxation.
No matter what the actual mechanism of action is for MFR, it works. My feet, and countless client’s feet are testament to how well it can work. Is it guaranteed to help your plantar fasciitis? No. Nothing is guaranteed. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
The other thing that helped me was finding shoes that gave my feet support but also let them move. Because of my job as a chemist, I’d been wearing very sturdy athletic shoes; great for support, horrible for letting my feet move in all the ways feet should move.
How important are shoes? Most of the people I know whose plantar fasciitis has fully resolved, have either changed the way they move/don’t move their feet and/or changed their shoes. Often both.
Whatever the cause of your heel pain, a solution is possible. A combination of targeted massage and stretches can go a long way in healing painful feet and preventing a recurrence of plantar fasciitis in the future. The next time you get out of bed and feel that familiar stabbing pain, take a few minutes for stretches and massage, and you’ll be up on your feet— literally— in no time!
P.S. If the stretches and self-massage aren’t cutting it, do your self a favor and call a professional. Your feet will thank you.