Pain with the first few steps in the morning? Pain during walking right in your arch or heel of the foot? Doesn’t seem to give up, no matter what you try?
You might be experiencing the all-too-common complaint of plantar fasciitis.
I see an increase in plantar fasciitis during seasonal shifts each year, whether it’s in the fall transition into winter boots, or the spring transition into lighter shoes.
Plantar fasciitis is the textbook name for irritation or inflammation of the plantar fascia, a thick band of connective tissue (fascia) that interweaves up the arch of the foot. This is an important support structure for the foot and body, which is why it can be so painful and debilitating when it’s irritated.
Often I see clients who have a chronic history of this nagging foot pain and have tried everything from orthotics, painkillers, stretches and massage with little success. While supportive shoes and orthotics often do help in the short term, it’s not uncommon to see that the symptoms come back after a period of time, regardless of support. This is because the roots of plantar fasciitis lie in the biomechanics and motor control, rather than just a passive structure failing.
Often plantar fasciitis is just one manifestation of common postural dysfunction problems. Other manifestations with the same roots can be knee pain, hip pain and low back pain. This is because the foot, and the arch itself, make up one of our most important stability centres.
When we don’t engage and use the stability genius that is our foot (which many of us don’t, because we spend much of our time in supportive footwear that essentially does the job of our foot for our foot) — we lose the benefits and experience the consequences of instability.
This is not to say footwear and orthotics are bad things. They simply have become overused and relied upon too much when correcting foot pain. When we can recreate an active organic support system within our foot, the plantar fascia has the support it needs to function well and be pain free again.
Here are three exercises to try for alleviating plantar fasciitis once and for all:
- Toe Curls: Sit-ups for the feet! Keeping the foot on the ground (you can be seated or standing) curl your toes as if you are trying to pick something up with them. You can also do this with a towel underneath your foot, curling the towel in towards your foot gradually. Or, for additional challenge, use your toes to pick up a towel from the ground. Do sets of 10 curls, three to five times each day. You should feel the arch muscles working. Don’t underestimate this move! It can be very challenging to even engage those toes if they’ve been immobile and forgotten about for a long period of time.
- Calf Stretching and Tiptoe Walking: Place your foot on an angle against a wall or stack of books. Keeping the knee straight lean forward into the wall. You should feel a stretch in your calf. Hold for 15 to 20 deep breaths and then bend the knee slightly with the foot in the same position. The stretch should shift down your calf slightly. Hold here for 15 to 20 seconds. After repeating this three to four times on each side, walk around for 20- to 30-second intervals on your tiptoes. This combo will both stretch out tight calves (which attach into the plantar fascia via the Achilles tendon) as well as engage them towards stability — two important factors in re-engaging foot stability.
- Rock and Roll: Using a wall to help with balance, rock slowly onto your heels (lifting up front of foot) and slowly forwards onto toes (lifting the heels). Repeat this 10 to 15 times, three to five times a day. Second to this, use a tennis/golf/lacrosse ball to massage out the arch of the foot. Standing, roll the ball (pressure to tolerance) back and forth 10 to 20 times, and then side to side or in circles on your arch 10 to 20 times, a few times a day. This can be especially helpful first thing in the morning when the pain is often the worst.
Try these exercises right as you’re getting out of bed to alleviate morning pain. The reason pain is often worse in the morning is that overnight (long period of immobility for the foot) the plantar fascia shortens and stiffens into place (it only takes 19 minutes for the fascia to stiffen into a position). This means that when you first go to step forward in the morning, you are stepping onto a shortened, stiffened structure and increasing the pain.
Alongside these exercises, experiment with being out of shoes as much as possible when at home or in warmer weather outside. This will help re-engage the foot organically. It’s also important to have good hydration and nutrition habits too, as downfall in either of those areas will perpetuate inflammation and stress in the system as a whole.