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By Rita La Rosa Loud, B.S.

The agonizing pain in Mary’s foot woke her up one morning, and as the days went on, it got progressively worse. Mary was worried she may have hurt her arch while training for a 10K along a concrete beach walkway. Would she be able to continue her physical training, she wondered.

It’s not surprising that Mary’s foot pain and stiffness could prevent her, or anyone going through this, from giving up on exercising. The most common foot complaint many people suffer from, and what Mary was likely experiencing, is heel pain in the rear arch area of her foot, caused by plantar fasciitis. More than 3 million Americans suffer with this condition yearly.

There are numerous reasons one can end up with this ailment. It tends to occur in those who spend a lot of time on their feet, such as nurses, doctors, teachers, mail carriers, supermarket cashiers, and people, in general, who work at jobs standing all day. It also happens to exercise enthusiasts, like Mary, who spend a lot of time walking or running on hard surfaces, and athletes who are involved in contact sports. Wearing shoes that do not provide adequate support may also contribute to foot discomfort, and those with flat feet or high arches are more susceptible.

Surprisingly, the lower leg is where the source of this pain is actually generated. Tight calf muscles, called gastrocnemius muscles that connect to the Achilles tendon, could be responsible for Mary’s arch pain. There are other muscles, besides the calf, that are located in the lower leg that can stress the fascia. The soleus muscle, for one, if it is tight, can also cause sore arches. Like the gastrocnemius, it too merges into the Achilles tendon. Another muscle that inserts into the arch is the tibialis anterior.  Not only does it cause stress and strain, but it can also lead to shin splints, which are quite painful. Then there are the peroneals, and when they become tight, this can also result in chronic arch pain.

If you are experiencing stabbing pain, tenderness, or swelling in your heel, similar to Mary’s distress, meet with an orthopedist or a podiatrist to determine if you require medical treatment or physical therapy sessions for your arch and heel cord.  More than 98 percent of people get better with treatment, and 90 percent significantly improve within two to three months of initial treatment.

Julie Donnelly, LMT Pain Relief Expert and Deep Muscle Massage Therapist, suggests the best approach to relieve plantar fasciitis pain is a muscle release technique performed prior to stretching, which unties the “knot” in the shortened muscle(s). This treatment for the major muscles involved in foot pain can be found in the book, Treat Yourself to Pain-Free Living. Another resource regarding symptoms and causes of plantar fasciitis is the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. 

Here are a few strengthening and stretching exercises that assist in moving your feet and may alleviate the actual causes of plantar fasciitis pain. In fact, the same exercises to relieve arch or heel cord pain can help to prevent fasciitis pain. It is imperative to keep these muscles flexible, but also to build strength in the muscles that are responsible for this condition that may, over time, reduce fasciitis pain.

The following seven exercises can be done anywhere. 

Arch Strengthening Towel Exercise

Perform this exercise in a sitting position in bare feet. Place a small hand towel on the floor. With both feet on the floor, start with your affected foot, and with your toes, grab the towel and pull it towards you. Perform this exercise three to five times. Repeat with your unaffected foot for preventive purposes.

Manual Toe Pulls

Remain seated in bare feet. Cross the leg of the affected foot over the other. With your hands, grasp all of your toes and gently pull them toward you. You should feel a mild stretch in the arch of your foot. Hold this stretch for 20-30 seconds (no bouncing).  Breathe throughout the stretch. Perform one or two more repetitions. Repeat with the opposite foot.

Calf Raises

This will increase strength in feet and calf muscles.

Stand barefoot with both feet flat on the floor. Hold onto the back of a sturdy chair for support. Rise up onto your toes and tighten your calf muscles. Pause for three to five seconds, then slowly lower your heels back down. Perform 10-15 repetitions.

Wall Ankle and Calf Stretch

The Achilles tendon and gastrocnemius muscles benefit from relaxing tight calf muscles.

Stand facing the wall, legs staggered, with arms outstretched against the wall. Keep your chest lifted, shoulders down, and hips squared. Bend your front leg and extend the back leg behind you, heel flat. Press your hip forward until you feel a stretch in the calf.  Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds (no bouncing).  Breathe throughout.  Repeat with the opposite leg.

Wall Calf Stretch

This will help realign and ease heel pain.

Stand facing the wall. With your heel of the affected foot flat, place the ball of your foot against the wall. Gently press your hips toward the wall. You should feel a stretch in your calf. Hold this stretch for 20-30 seconds then release your hips. Repeat with your other foot.

Seated Towel Calf Stretch

Targets muscles in your feet and calf (tibialis anterior, Achilles tendon, plantar fascia)

Sit on the floor with bare feet. Extend the leg of the affected foot, keeping the other leg slightly bent for support. Use a towel or elastic band and wrap it around the flexed foot of the extended leg. Grasp the towel or elastic band with both hands, and gently pull your foot towards you, keeping your knee straight. Hold this stretch for 20-30 seconds   Perform one or two more repetitions. Repeat with the opposite leg.

Foot Roller Foot Roll

Foot roller will support and massage both sides of arches.

Stand or sit with bare feet. Put the roller beneath the heel of the affected foot. Roll your foot back and forth, first to the ball of your foot then back to your heel for 5-10 repetitions. Repeat with the other foot.

Relieving plantar fasciitis chronic pain can be challenging and very frustrating for many who struggle with this condition. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to treat it naturally with a variety of effective stretching and strengthening exercises that can be done daily in the comfort of your home. However, should your heel pain worsen for any reason while performing these exercises, please stop and contact your doctor.

About the Author:Rita La Rosa Loud holds a B.S. in Exercise Physiology with additional education in Sports Medicine and Athletic Training.  She is NASM Certified and has been actively involved in the fitness industry for over 35 years.  She is also an author and writes fitness related articles for various fitness publications.  Currently, she is a Fitness Researcher, who Co-Directs the Health & Fitness Center at Quincy College with Dr. Wayne L. Westcott.

Reprinted from the June 2020 edition of the South Shore Senior News