This condition is caused by inflammation and micro-tearings in the plantar fascia, a band of tissue that forms the arch of your foot. This tissue runs from your heel to each of the bones that make up the ball of your foot.
When we're younger, the tissue is very elastic, but with age, it loses its ability to stretch. Also, we lose that fat that normally cushions our heels. (I'd rather lose fat in my belly or butt as I get older, not in my heels!) Anyway, this means our heels don't absorb shock as well as they used to when we walk, jog or run.
As an athlete, I know the frustration of being sidelined by plantar fasciitis. It can be very painful, characterized by a sharp pain in the heel and general discomfort. According to an article published in American Family Physician in 2011, you're more likely to develop plantar fasciitis if you are overweight or obese, have flat feet or high arches, run excessively or spend a lot of time on your feet. The article noted that more than 1 million people suffer from plantar fasciitis each year.
So, how can you prevent it in the first place or treat it if you have it? Here are some suggestions.
1. Stretch and massage your heels and soles
To keep my overall foot area flexible, I like to roll the bottom of my foot on a tennis ball or golf ball. This makes for a great self-massage and is terrific for helping to heal inflamed foot tissue.
2. Give it a rest
There's no toughing it out here. If it hurts, stop doing sports or any high-impact activity temporarily. Icing the painful, aching area is effective, too. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggests applying ice for 20 minutes three times a day, especially right after you exercise and just before you go to sleep.
3. Change your footwear
Try sports shoes that have better cushioning and arch support, or look into getting foot orthotics such as heel pads and arch supports to slip into your shoes. You can buy these in sports stores. Some shoes just don't have a heel cup that complements your particular-shaped heel. Be aware that plantar fasciitis comes on slowly, so pay close attention to any heel pain you feel after switching shoe brands.
4. Warm up your calf and foot muscles
Before exercising, do some light walking followed by some gentle calf and heel stretching. Basically, this involves standing on an elevated platform (such as stairs) and raising and lowering your heels.
5. Consider an OTC painkiller
For really bad plantar fasciitis pain, many doctors say it's OK to take over-the-counter painkillers for relief.
6. Be patient
Sometimes it takes as long as six months for plantar fasciitis to heal. Should it take longer than that, you might consider extracorporeal shock wave therapy. This treatment delivers sound waves to the heel. Research shows it has helped people with severe pain. There is a surgical option, too, involving the removal of part of the plantar fascia to release tension on the arch, but this is considered a last resort because it may cause complications and have a longer healing time.
When you're an athlete or an active person, you never know which body part might betray you. The precautions and techniques I've discussed will go a long way toward keeping you pain-free and on your feet.
Martina Navratilova is AARP's fitness expert.
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