Plantar Fasciitis is the most common cause of heel pain and one of the most common foot conditions. It is a painful inflammatory and degenerative condition of the plantar fascia, the band of connective tissue that connects the base of the heel bone to the toes, and whose function is to help support the arch of the foot.
Plantar Fasciitis is mainly caused an excessive load on your feet. While you’re standing, walking, or running, the plantar fascia can be subjected to significant tension; when this tension is excessive, small tears of the fascia may occur, triggering an inflammatory reaction.
Physical activities that excessively load the plantar fascia are among the most common risk factors for Plantar Fasciitis, particularly those that involve running, jumping, dancing, standing for long periods, or even being barefoot. Excessive weight, wearing shoes with inappropriate foot support, working out without adequate warm-up, taking on new physical activities without proper preparation, or suddenly increasing the intensity of regular activities also contribute to an increased likelihood of developing Plantar Fasciitis.
In general, it’s all a matter of you much pressure and stress you’re placing on the plantar fascia. Therefore, Plantar Fasciitis can also be a consequence of biomechanical factors of the foot that increase the load on the plantar fascia, such as excessive pronation (rolling inwards, known as flat feet) or having a high arch, for example.
The Role of Calf Muscles and the Achilles Tendon in Plantar Fasciitis and Foot Pain
The muscles, tendons, and joints of the lower leg and the ankle are all structurally and functionally connected. Calf muscles (called the Gastrocnemius and Soleus muscles) power the motion of the ankle and the foot. These two muscles come together through bands of connective tissue to form the Achilles tendon, located at the back of the ankle, connecting the calf muscles to the heel.
In turn, the Achilles tendon is functionally connected to the plantar fascia through the ankle joint. The Achilles tendon is responsible for transmitting the force generated by the calf muscles across the ankle joint to the foot. The calf muscles and the Achilles tendon provide support to the plantar fascia in bearing the weight of our body and in absorbing the impact of our gait or stride.
Just like the plantar fascia, the calf muscles and the Achilles tendon are subjected to significant stress when you stand, walk, or run for long periods of time. This can make them overworked and cause them to get tight. But the opposite is also true — tight calf muscles can also be the result of lack of use due to excessive sitting, for example.
When calf muscles get tight, more stress is placed on the Achilles tendon; increased tension in the Achilles tendon will in turn increase tension in the plantar fascia, increasing the likelihood of foot injuries. Furthermore, tight calf muscles can limit the movements of the ankle, which leads to adjustments in the foot biomechanics, such as over pronation, which decreases the height of the foot arch and continuously over-stretches the plantar fascia.
Therefore, the indirect functional relationship between the calf muscles, the Achilles tendon, and the plantar fascia is very important in the context of Plantar Fasciitis and foot pain.
The good news is that you can easily get rid of tight calf muscles and even foot pain with some simple conservative treatments, particularly through stretching exercises.
The Best Stretches for Tight Calves and Foot Pain
Stretching the calf muscles, the Achilles tendon, and the plantar fascia helps you get rid of muscle and tendon tightness and increases the support to the plantar fascia. Simple stretching exercises of the lower limb help to stabilize the ankle joint and maintain the integrity of the foot arch, decreasing the likelihood of developing foot pain.
Stretching exercises for the lower leg and foot are simple, easily done at home, and can easily be included in your daily routine. Ideally, stretching exercises should be performed at least twice a day. It is important to always warm up with a short period of walking before stretching to avoid injuries.
Here are a few simple stretches for the plantar fascia, the Achilles tendon, and the calf muscles you can easily do at home:
Plantar Fascia Massage
Using two fingers, apply small circular movements to any knots and lumps in the plantar fascia. Apply deep pressure, but not so much that you tighten up with pain. This massage helps you loosen and stretch the plantar fascia.
Stand straight with your hands against a wall, both knees apart and your toes facing forward. Keeping your heels flat on the floor, lean into the wall until you feel the stretch in your lower calf. You can also place your injured foot slightly behind your other foot, and keeping your heels flat on the floor, slowly bend both knees until you feel the stretch in the lower part of your leg. Another possibility, also with your injured foot slightly behind the other foot and heels flat on the floor, is to slowly lean forward keeping the injured leg straight and bending the other leg until you feel the stretch in the middle of your calf. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat three times.
Stand with your toes on a step with your legs slightly apart and your heels off the edge of the step. Slowly lower your heels, keeping the knees straight, until you feel the stretch in the calves. Hold for 15 seconds and then lift your heels back to the starting position. You can either do both feet at the same time, or one foot at a time. Repeat five times.
Roll Stretch/Ice massage
Cold can alleviate inflammation and pain, while massaging the bottom of your foot can stretch your plantar fascia. Combining the two is therefore a great way to treat your foot pain. This can easily be done using a frozen water bottle — just roll it back and forth with the arch of the foot from your toes to your heels. Ice massage can be very effective in quickly relieving you from your discomfort and pain and in preventing pain after long periods of inactivity. You can also use a rolling pin, a can or a tennis ball, for example, but using something cold will help reduce inflammation. You can do this either standing or sitting. This dynamic stretch is great for a long day on your feet or to help relieve stiffness or swelling.
Elastic Strap Stretch
Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Take a stretch strap and place it around your toes. Keeping your knees straight, gently pull the strap towards you, pulling the toes towards your body. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then release. Repeat three times.
Place just toes up on the wall with the ball of the foot and heel on the ground. Lean into the wall slowly until the stretch is felt. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times.
Other Treatments for Tight Muscles and Foot Pain
Stretching alone can be helpful, but if used in combination with other conservative remedies it becomes way more effective. Here are some simple treatments for plantar fasciitis to use in combination with stretching:
Deep Tissue Massage
Deep tissue massage to the heel and to the back of the calf muscles helps stretch and release tension in these tissues. It can therefore be very helpful in alleviating any pain or discomfort. However, it is important that an expert perform it.
Anterior Night Splints
Night splints help support the arch of your foot and stretch the plantar fascia, the Achilles tendon, and your calf muscles while you sleep. They can be very helpful if used regularly every night. However, this may not be a good option if you are a poor sleeper, as wearing night splints may disrupt your sleep.
The guest post was written by Dr. Janet Pearl, Member of the American Pain Society, The Massachusetts Medical Society, the Massachusetts Society of Anesthesiologists, the Massachusetts Society of Interventional Pain Physicians and more. Received M.D. from the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and received a M. Sc. in Health Planning and Financing at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Medical Director at the Center for Morton’s Neuroma and Fasciitis.com
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