The heel spur (or calcaneal spur) is a nail-like growth of calcium around the ligaments and tendons of the foot where they attach to the heel bone. The spur grows from the bone and into the flesh of the foot.
A heel spur results from an anatomical change of the calcaneus (heel bone). This involves the area of the heel and occasionally, another disability, such as arthritis.
The heel bone forms one end of the two longitudinal arches of the foot. These arches are held together by ligaments and are activated by the muscles of the foot (some of which are attached beneath the arches and run from the front to the back of the foot). These muscles and ligaments, like the other supporting tissues of the body, are attached in two places. Many are attached at the heel bone. The body reacts to the stress at the heel bone by calcifying the soft tissue attachments and creating a spur.
The calcaneal spur is seen most often in persons over the age of 40. The condition can also be associated with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, poor circulation of the blood and other degenerative diseases. Men and women are equally likely to have them.
Although it may take years to become a problem, once it appears, it may cause considerable suffering. Because of proximity to the tendons, the spur is a source of continuous painful aching. The sensation has been described as "a toothache in the foot." When you place your weight on the heel, the pain can be sufficient to immobilize you.
The pain caused by a calcaneal spur is not the result of the pressure of weight on the point of the spur, but results from inflammation around the tendons where they attach to the heel bone. You might expect the pain to increase as you walk on the spur, but actually it decreases. The pain is most severe when you start to walk after a rest. The nerves and capillaries adapt themselves to the situation as you walk. When you rest, the nerves and capillaries rest, also. Then, as you begin to move about again, extreme demands are made on the blood vessels and nerves, which will cause pain until they again adjust to the spur.
If excessive strain has been placed on the foot the day before, the pain may also be greater. A sudden strain, as might be produced by leaping or jumping, can also increase the pain. The pain might be localized at first, but continued walking and standing will soon cause the entire heel to become tender and painful.
On x-ray examination, the spur can resemble a protruding tooth penetrating the flesh of the heel.
Elevation of the affected foot and leg at rest may diminish the pain. Applying gentle heat to the painful area may ease the pain by dilating local blood vessels.
One also can protect the heel by placing a foam rubber pad in the heel of the shoe. A pad about one-half inch thick will raise the heel, shift the weight of the body forward, and protect the irritated muscles attached to the heel bone. The same effect can be achieved by using adhesive tape to turn the foot inward.
Additional treatment may consist of a number of physical therapies, such as diathermy, ultrasound waves and whirlpool baths.
Diathermy treatment uses an electrical current to produce heat that sedates the inflamed tissues. The ultrasound device sends sound waves into the heel and sets up a massaging action that stimulates blood circulation. Treatment with a whirlpool bath involves placing the foot directly into the jetting stream.
Orthopedic molds and appliances, such as orthotics, are designed by foot specialists for use inside the shoe to eliminate irritation to the heel when the patient stands or walks. When those appliances are used, the spur (in effect) floats on air. At the same time, the body's weight is transferred forward from the tender spot.
Surgery, which is a more radical treatment, can be a permanent correction to remove the spur itself. If your doctor believes that surgery is indicated, he will recommend an operation - but only after establishing that less drastic methods of treatment are not successful.