Acupuncture for Heel Pain
While many people consider acupuncture a new-age, contemporary approach to healing, this treatment technique is one of the oldest forms of Eastern medicine.
Both anecdotal evidence and some studies show that acupuncture can be an effective tool to help you manage heel pain.
Curious about acupuncture and whether or not it might help you with your plantar fasciitis? Read on!
What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture was developed in China, several thousand years ago. It’s based on the idea that it’s possible to encourage an anti-inflammatory, healing response in the body by stimulating “acupressure points” with precise tools (tiny needles).
During an acupuncture session, performed by a certified acupuncturist, patients are first examined, then asked to lie down. The acupuncturist will then insert several thin, sterilized needles into the injured area (this may cause mild, momentary discomfort), which stay in place for up to 30 minutes.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
There’s a lot of debate, even in the medical community, about how acupuncture works. The most common theory is that the tiny needles used in acupuncture stimulate the nerves, triggering the release of hormones that can help lower stress, pain, and inflammation:
Dr. Ting Bao, who works as an integrative medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center says, “”One major hypothesis is that acupuncture works through neurohormonal pathways. Basically, you put the needle through specific points in the body and stimulate the nerve. The nerve actually sends signals to the brain, and the brain releases neural hormones such as beta-Endorphins. By doing that, the patient may feel euphoric, or happy, and this increases the pain threshold and they feel less pain.”
Using Acupuncture for Plantar Fasciitis and Heel Pain
Because acupuncture can be helpful for chronic pain and inflammation, it has become an increasingly popular supplemental treatment for plantar fasciitis and heel pain.
Acupuncturists are familiar with a wide variety of foot issues, including tarsal tunnel syndrome, sever’s disease, sports injuries, and heel pain from plantar fasciitis. Before you make an appointment with an acupuncturist to help relieve symptoms of plantar fasciitis, it’s a good idea to ask questions about how familiar your chosen provider is with treating heel pain. During your session, expect to sit or lie on a table while the acupuncturist focuses needle placement on your heels, feet, and surrounding acupressure points Some people report feeling relief from pain quickly, while others experience relief from symptoms as sessions progress. Most people with chronic pain need one or two visits per week, for several months.
Remember, acupuncture is a supplemental treatment, not a cure, and should be done alongside proven conservative treatment methods (more on that below!).
How Effective Is Acupuncture for Heel Pain?
Several studies show that acupuncture is effective in significantly reducing chronic pain from plantar fasciitis. When used as intended (a supplementary treatment for short-term pain relief), acupuncture can be a useful addition to your treatment toolbox.
Another larger-scale analysis of 29 studies that evaluated acupuncture’s effectiveness on chronic pain also found that acupuncture made a significant difference for chronic pain sufferers, when compared with placebo. All of these studies make clear that “sham acupuncture” is different from acupuncture performed by a certified provider. In other words, make sure that you choose a licensed, certified acupuncturist!
Pros and Cons of Acupuncture
In general, acupuncture is low-risk and safe. If you decide to explore this treatment option, it can be helpful to look at some of the pros and cons side by side:
Pros of Acupuncture
- Few risks or side effects.
- Low pain. While needles might sound scary, they are very small and do not hurt.
- Some studies show good results for relief from chronic pain
- Can be combined with other treatment options
- A good option for patients who have a hard time tolerating pain medication
Cons of Acupuncture
- Should not be used by patients who are taking blood thinners or have bleeding disorders (like hemophilia)
- Does not treat the root cause of heel pain
- Soreness or bruising may result from treatment
- In very rare cases, a needle may break off and cause internal damage if inserted too deeply
Average Cost of Acupuncture
The cost of acupuncture will depend on your provider’s experience, specialties, whether or not the treatment is covered by insurance, and whether or not your session includes added features (such as heated needles or aromatherapy with essential oils).
You can find a licensed acupuncturist on the National Certification Commission in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine site. While some insurance companies still do not cover acupuncture, others do, so be sure to check first! Without insurance, an initial intake visit and treatment will run between $75-$95, while followup treatments will run approximately $50-$70.
Other Tools for Treating Plantar Fasciitis
While acupuncture shows promise in temporarily relieving pain from plantar fasciitis, patients would do well to remember that this is a supplementary treatment that does not address the underlying causes of heel pain.
Kick heel pain to the curb for good by replacing your worn shoes (or unsupportive shoes like high heels and flip flops!) with properly fitting, supporting footwear. Rest your feet regularly, and avoid spending long periods of time on your feet when possible. Ice your feet to relieve inflammation, and stretch your feet and legs daily to keep your muscles and your fascia limber and strong. And support a damaged arch with orthotic inserts that lift and realign the arch to an optimal height while you walk!