Heel pain can be intense, and despite resting the foot and trying a variety of other conservative measures to try to get relief, oftentimes it persists. Have you tried it all over the past few months? Ice, pain relievers, calf stretching, braces, physical therapy, and so on? Are you considering, or have you already pulled the trigger on, steroid treatments despite the awful side effects? Would it surprise you to hear that this persistent heel pain may actually be a warning sign that you have a problem in a seemingly entirely different part of your body—your lower back? So the key to relieving your heel pain likely lies in treating the lower back.
The Back Bone’s Connected to the Heel?
The back bone may not be directly connected to the heel; however, it is connected via the nerve supply. The structures that make up the heel contain nerve branches that are rooted all the way up in the lower back. And that nerve branch is responsible for both sending and receiving signals between the foot (part of the peripheral nervous system) and the spine (central nervous system). This nervous system wiring is, in fact, one massive network, so if our S1 nerve becomes irritated in the lower back, for example, it can affect any structure down the leg—the hip, knee, ankle, heel, and so on.
Interestingly, with an irritated nerve in the back, you may or may not have pain in the back. In fact, the only warning sign you may have is that heel pain, perhaps plantar fasciitis, that just won’t subside. This is why it’s so critical to have your back checked when the heel pain warning sign first appears. The longer you wait, the more damage that can be done, and treating a small issue is much easier than cleaning up the mess a much bigger issue can cause. Ignoring your heel pain could lead to not only chronic back problems and more issues but also, for example, Achilles tendon or calf muscle tears.
In addition to heel pain, the irritated nerves in your back can cause chronically tight or twitching calf muscles, wreaking havoc on your plantar fascia (the broad connective band of tissue that lines the sole of the foot) over time. Why hasn’t your doctor or the foot and ankle guy told you your heel pain may not actually be a heel problem? They are trained to focus on the area of pain, in this case the heel, not on how to identify a potential low-back root cause. Learn more by watching Dr. Centeno’s video below:
Avoid Unnecessary Surgery and Steroids for Heel Pain
Your goal for treating your heel pain should be to avoid unnecessary surgeries. One of those is a brutal surgery on our top-10 dumb surgeries list (read more about it here), the gastrocnemius recession. Traditionally done for some deformities in the legs, in recent years it’s begun to be performed for elective orthopedic surgeries for conditions such as plantar fasciitis, calf tightness, and heel pain. The surgery involves cutting the calf muscle to force it to lengthen, but as with any surgery that attempts to rearrange the body’s biomechanics, in most cases, it’s just a bad idea. In addition, if your heel pain is being caused by a problem in your back, and you let a surgeon go in and cut up your calf muscle, how is this going to help your heel pain?
Steroids should also be avoided for heel pain as not only does relieve lessen with each subsequent injection, but steroids are associated with both cartilage and local stem cell destruction.
Treating Your Heel Pain and Back Issues with Orthobiologics
Your interventional orthopedic (IO) physician will not only examine your heel pain but also trace it to the source of the problem. If there is an issue in the low back, he or she will not only address the heel pain but also the low back and any problems in between. Using the the SANS approach, he or she will assess stability, articulation, neuromuscular function, and symmetry.
Following assessment, your IO physician will treat the affected areas with your own precisely guided orthobiologics, such as platelet-rich plasma (PRP) for an issue in the heel and/or growth factors isolated from your platelets (platelet lysate) and injected around the irritated nerves in the back to help stimulate the local stem cells to wake up and start the repair process.
The biggest take-away here is to pay attention to your heel pain right away. This could be an early warning signal that something much bigger is at play, such as an irritated nerve in the back.