Heel spurs are one of those interesting topics that often comes up in conversation with patients. When heel pain is a problem, one of the first concerns that comes to some patients’ minds is whether it might be a spur. Why are heel spurs so frequently brought up? It could be that the name is so easy to stand out in one’s memory. The only other times the word “spurs” ever really come up are in talks about cowboys or professional San Antonio basketball teams. And we admit it’s a lot catchier a term than something like “peripheral neuropathy.” But what exactly is a heel spur, and what does it actually mean for you if you have one? Let’s go over a few good questions and facts when it comes to this interesting phenomenon.
So what is a heel spur, exactly?A heel spur is a growth of calcium that causes a small, bony protrusion off the calcaneus, or heel bone. This growth tends to occur toward the bottom or underside of the heel bone, but can sometimes appear on the back as well. A heel spur will rarely grow more than a half-inch in length, and often reaches only about a quarter-inch overall.
What causes a heel spur to form?The growth of a heel spur can often be in response to strain or pressure in that area. In essence, the heel bone is building itself up in that spot as a means of protection against that excessive force. This type of defensive growth is somewhat like the way a callus forms on the skin in an area of high friction. In the case of a heel spur, however, this growth can take a number of months to build up.
What types of excessive force can trigger the growth of a heel spur?Anything that causes strain in the area of the heel bone can place enough stress on the heel bone itself to cause the formation of calcium deposits. This includes stressing of muscles or ligaments in the foot and repeated tearing of the membrane that surrounds the heel bone itself. One particularly common cause of heel spur development is overstretching of the plantar fascia, a thick band of tissue that runs beneath the foot and is connected to the heel bone. (We will talk more about this perpetrator later.) In general, people who are more at risk for developing heel spurs:
- Have abnormalities in foot structure (such as flat feet or high arches) or gait abnormalities that place excess pressure on certain areas of the foot.
- Are overweight.
- Wear shoes that are worn out, ill-fitting, and/or lack good support for the arches.
- Run or engage in high-impact sports on hard surfaces.
- Are older, with less natural protection around their heels and decreased overall flexibility in the feet.
- Have jobs or hobbies that involve spending most or all day on one’s feet.
- Have diabetes.