Please, have a seat. Comfortable? Good. Would you like some water? No? Okay, let’s begin. I’d like you to close your eyes; now breathe deeply and allow your mind to drift off to some place warm and happy. Walmart? Um . . . sure, why not. I’m going to say two words, when I say those words I want you to stay calm and relaxed. Ready? Plantar Fasciitis. Wait, don’t get up, where are you going? Come back!
Hmm, you seem a bit sensitive. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with the PF thing. On the other hand, it’s possible you have no clue what I’m talking about, and if that’s the case then consider yourself lucky. After all, why trouble your mind with negative stuff: ignorance is bliss, baby. That is until you’re mid-way through a build-up for your next half marathon, logging big miles, and your first steps out of bed the morning after a hard run that was maybe a little too hard feel like you’re stepping on broken glass. Then six months on, you’re still dealing with the same &%$# problem, you’re “cross-training” (oh yeah, who doesn’t love pool running???), your racing plans are a smoldering ruin, and you realize that given the option you’d have gladly stepped on broken glass so this nightmare would have ended about the same time they removed the stitches from your foot.
I’m here to offer what help I can, but be forewarned, this article will not present the cure for PF simply because it’s not a condition that favors its victims with specific causes and certain cures. I’ll merely explain what is currently known about its origins, and then offer some therapies that might give succor to the afflicted. So don’t expect a miracle; there’ll be no tossing of crutches, canes or night splints into a bonfire, no spontaneous healings. Sorry. As a yoga teacher I’m biased, naturally, toward “stretching” tissue, because I believe, and the evidence suggests, that poor flexibility has a causative role in PF. But it’s just that, a contributing factor, and not the smoking gun that sufferers are desperately seeking. Anecdotally, reports from my students suffering from PF tell me that stretching has been effective in alleviating symptoms, and some have reported their pain disappears completely. Hallelujah! Send your donations to my PayPal account, all major credit cards accepted.
What is the Plantar Fascia?
It’s a sheet of connective tissue (fascia) that runs along the sole of each foot (the plantar), from the heel to the toes. Like all fascia, the plantar fascia is made of extremely tough and resilient tissue. It is this durability that allows it to absorb and withstand the huge mechanical forces that act on it when we walk, run, or jump. But it’s that same toughness that can make it very challenging to fix when injured.
One impediment to fast healing is that the fascia, unlike muscle, has limited blood flow. The vital nutrients in blood play a critical role in the health and healing of tissue, and if there isn’t much of it, the process of repair and regeneration won’t happen as quickly.
Yet another problem is that the plantar fascia is in an awkward location. If you’re interested in moving from place to place during the course of your day and you’re not using any type of mechanical conveyance, then you need your feet. So when you stand, walk, or run, the plantar fascia is being stressed, and unless you’re off our feet it won’t get a break. But even resting the plantar fascia can be a problem because it can tighten up, especially during sleep, resulting in those painful first steps every morning.
What is Plantar Fasciitis?
Plantar fasciitis is a degenerative condition of the plantar fascia that causes pain on the bottom of the foot. The plantar fascia usually begins to hurt due to overuse or trauma, and it shows up commonly in runners because they tend to overuse things. The typical locations for PF pain are the heel, just in front of the heel, or the arch. So if you have chronic pain in those places, you probably have PF. But it could be something else, like a heel spur or flat feet.
The pain from PF can range from very debilitating and life altering, to low-grade, annoying and something that its sufferers can live with. It’s common for runners or other athletes with PF to continue with their sport, albeit in a modified fashion. But as we’ll see, this approach is self-defeating.
Plantar fasciitis has a murky provenance. A good description comes from Lemont et al. (2003): “Plantar fasciitis is widely described . . . as having a multi-factorial and widely disputed etiology.” Translation: many potential causes with little agreement on an actual cause. In an influential 1965 study, “Painful Heel”, Lapidus and Guidotti wrote that “the name ‘Painful Heel’ is used deliberately in preference to any other more precise . . . diagnosis, since the cause . . . remains unknown.” Fast-forward to 2003, Lemont and company commented on the previous quotation from the “Painful Heel” study, writing “Now, 40 years later, this statement can still be considered accurate.” So in the space of nearly four decades, little progress has been made on discovering a cause of PF. The one exception is that now it’s now considered a degenerative condition, not an inflammatory one. But this just describes the nature of the condition rather than identifying a cause.
What Causes The Pain: Inflammation Or Degeneration?
Over the last few decades, there’s been a significant shift in the medical-scientific community’s thinking about the nature of overuse injuries in connective tissue (in particular tendons and fascia). According to Khan et al (2000), “Advances in the understanding of tendon pathology indicate that the conditions that have been traditionally labeled as Achilles tendonitis, patellar tendonitis . . . are in fact tendinosis.” Three years later Lemont, writing about plantar fasciitis, presented findings that strongly suggest that PF “is a degenerative fasciosis without inflammation.”
Hmm, tendonitis or tendinosis; fasciosis or fasciitis: what’s the difference other than four letters tacked on to the end? As it turns out, a great deal. In essence, this discovery has shown that the pain in your plantar fascia is not due to inflammation (signified by the suffix “itis”, Latin for inflammation, stuck to the end of tendon, fascia, etc.), but instead results from degeneration of the tissue (signified by “osis”, short for “necrosis”, or tissue death). In other words the tissue that makes up your plantar fascia is not inflamed, it’s degenerating, or worse, dying.
Our continued misunderstanding of PF results from the persistence of its description as fasciitis, rather than fasciosis. The medical community, either through habit or misunderstanding, continues to refer to it as an inflammatory condition. This is important, because at a minimum the absence of inflammation and the presence of necrosis in tendon and fascia overuse injuries change the treatment protocol for the injury. In the not-too-distant past the thinking was that if you were a runner and you hurt your plantar fascia, then the pain was from inflammation. The treatment for this was familiar to many runners: rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medication, and visits to the physiotherapist, who, among other things, would do stuff to the injured area with strange machines. During my days as a hard-core runner, I ingested fistfuls of anti-inflammatories and spent countless hours icing for a variety of running-related overuse injuries.
We never questioned this approach, or should I say that most people never questioned it. That is of course until someone realized that the accepted thinking on the matter was flawed. Again, Khan et al write that “an increasing body of evidence supports the notion that these overuse tendon conditions do not involve inflammation” and “tendonitis is a rather rare condition.” What researchers have discovered is that inflammatory cells were not present in the injured tissue of tendon or fascia; what they found instead was collagen breakdown, a key indicator for necrosis. You don’t treat tissue degeneration the same way you treat inflammation. Nowadays the accepted treatment for tendinosis or fasciosis includes plenty of icing (so glad that all the time I spent icing my Achilles tendon wasn’t wasted) and the “encouragement of collagen-synthesis,” in other words building the strength of the tissue by developing collagen.
Will this shift in our understanding of connective tissue reduce the recovery time for those with PF? Well, yes and no. First, time won’t be wasted with treatment methods that have little or no effect. On the other hand, the recovery from “osis” is generally much longer than from “itis”, something those of you with PF already know.
When a girl in a bikini promises “to cure your plan-TAR fasciitis in just a few days” as she kicks and punches a heavy bag, my advice is to be a bit skeptical.
Looking For A Cure
The PF I’m currently dealing with was the result of trauma, not overuse. While taking out the trash in my slippers last summer I stepped on a sharp rock directly under my heel. For two months I barely noticed it, and was able to walk and run free of pain. Then in December it suddenly got worse, and it’s been a problem ever since. Why did it happen this way? I have no idea and my doctors offer only vague explanations. Like most runners with PF I continued to run, thinking that because my case was the result of trauma and not overuse then somehow it would be different. Ah . . . no. I’ve just completed three weeks of no running and minimal walking and my foot is feeling pretty good. I’ve been maintaining my fitness and strength with indoor cycling and I’ll start back soon with a walk/run program.
After talking with other runners who have PF, most, at least initially, don’t rest. Considering the rather obsessive nature of most runners, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Two recent conversations with students of mine provide examples. Both are avid runners who injured their plantar fasciae and continued to run despite (tolerable) pain. So they kept at it, but not in a way that was enjoyable or that would allow them to train productively. Stopping completely to rest the injury was something they weren’t prepared to do, but it was a necessary step toward resolving the issue. In fact, the refusal-to-accept-reality mindset of most runners with PF is probably the reason that it has a reputation for being persistent, and one of the main reasons it takes so long for it to heal: runners just don’t want to stop running!
Some advice: when PF is diagnosed, stop running. Trust me, it will keep hurting unless you stop, and the longer you continue to run, the longer it will take to heal. The sad fact is that tendonosis takes substantially longer to heal than tendonitis.
In his excellent, in-depth review of the literature on PF, Paul Ingraham provides a synopsis of the most viable treatments.
1) Arch support (with inserts or supportive shoes)
2) Calf stretches
3) Plantar fascia stretches
4) Night splints (devices that hold the plantar fascia in a constant stretch, or traction, as you sleep)
* Icing, popular as an anti-inflammatory, is also effective in treating tendonosis. I now ice my plantar fasciosis frequently and it definitely helps.
Note that of Ingraham’s seven recommendations, three involve stretching tissue, either the plantar fascia itself or the calf (really all the muscles on the back of the lower leg). Also, #3 and #4 are essentially the same: while #4 uses a device to hold the foot dorsi-flexed for a prolonged time, usually overnight, #3 would be short duration yoga-type stretching.
In my yoga classes and workshops, I teach specific postures that create a deep stretch on the front and back of the lower leg, and the top and bottom of the foot. While in Virasana (see photo), students plantar-flex (point toes and feet) and dorsi-flex (curl toes under) their feet. The structures most affected by this routine are the calf, soleus, Achilles tendon, and posterior tibialis on the back of the lower leg; the anterior tibialis on the front of the lower leg; the plantar fascia on the bottom of the foot; and the peroneals on the lateral side of the lower leg.
To those of you suffering from PF, I can only say good luck and don’t give up hope. Investigate your options, do the work, and be optimistic. The vast majority of those afflicted are completely cured or a have a substantial reduction in their symptoms. If you are proactive, diligent, and patient, you’ll be part of that majority.