Heel Pain in Older Adults and the Elderly
Heel pain as a natural result of the aging process is one of the most common conditions among older adults and the elderly. And whether the pain is dull and aching or sharp and stabbing, it is a serious impediment to daily work and play.
The Link Between Heel Pain and Old Age
While most people assume that athletes are most at risk for developing heel pain and plantar fasciitis, studies show that the biggest risk factor is actually age!
Podiatrist Michael A. Sherwin, who has been practicing in Washington for more than 30 years, estimates that 50% of his patients are senior citizens. Why? As Dr. Sherwin puts it, “Aging baby boomers’ feet are like cars. The more miles you have on them, the more things can go wrong or wear out.”
It’s no surprise then, that one of the most common causes of heel pain in older adults and the elderly is plantar fasciitis (or plantar fasciosis), which happens as a result of wear and tear on the plantar fascia (or arch of the foot), degeneration of the heel fat pad, overuse, or inflammation.
Additional risk factors for heel pain that come with age include cardiovascular problems or diabetes (which can reduce circulation to the feet), as well as obesity, which places extra strain on the arch of the foot.
How Common is Heel Pain for Older Adults and the Elderly?
In general, heel pain and plantar fasciitis affect about one in every 10 people. But the statistics are significantly higher for the elderly and older adults: A study at Keele University found that one in every four older adults suffers from heel pain or foot pain!
According to a study conducted by the Department of Medicine at St. James University Hospital, the majority of these older adults and elderly individuals rate their heel pain as disabling and the main reason they don’t leave them home.
Other risk factors that can increase your odds of developing heel pain or plantar fasciitis as an older adult include obesity, being female, and conditions that degenerate and inflame the joints and tissues, like arthritis.
Causes of Heel Pain in the Elderly and Older Adults
Heel pain in the elderly and older adults is associated with a number of different causes and risk factors. Narrowing down the likely cause of your heel pain can help you take steps to reduce or eliminate it:
Long-term Use of Ill-Fitting Footwear
A lifetime of wearing ill-fitting footwear can result in heel pain and plantar fasciitis in the later years of life. Over time, shoes that cramp the heels or toes, force the foot into an unnatural position that makes it difficult to absorb impact, or rub against different parts of the foot can lead to strain and damage.
Cumulative Wear and Tear from Exercise and Work
Strenuous physical activities like jogging, sports, or even just standing for long periods of time can have a cumulative effect on your foot health, especially as body tissues and joints become less flexible, heal more slowly, and are prone to wear and tear.
Neuropathic and Inflammatory Conditions
Diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s and other neuropathic or inflammatory conditions that damage and erode tissue and nerves can have a big impact on heel and foot pain. These conditions can damage and erode the arch, as well as the surrounding supporting ligaments and bones in the foot.
Flatter, Wider Feet
As you age, your feet widen and flatten. This makes it increasingly difficult for the arch of the foot to distribute weight and impact properly, leading to strain and damage. This flattening can also cause the heel fat pad to wear out more quickly. And without this padding, more stress lands on the heel bone and arch.
Circulatory and Balance Problems
As the body gets older, blood flow may diminish–which can lead to a buildup of scar tissue and slower healing from micro-injuries and strain. Balance problems can lead to changes in gait that wear on the arch in different areas, or falls and stumbles that damage the fascia.
Changes in the Skin and Soft Tissues
More delicate, drier foot skin can lead to an increasing number of blisters, lesions, corns, and calluses that make walking uncomfortable–and place extra pressure on the arch. Along these same lines, soft tissues like the fat pad of the heel can become less elastic and less able to cushion the heel bone.
Caring for Aging Feet
Because heel pain is so common in older adults and the elderly, it’s especially important to take the time to care for your aging feet:
Support and Cushion
One of the most important things you can do to support your arch, reduce the strain on your fat pad, and help flatter feet distribute impact properly is by wearing orthotic inserts like Heel Seats. These clinically proven, cost-effective inserts help relieve pain and offer 360-degree support while lifting and realigning the arch to a proper height.
Stretch and Massage
Help the tissues and ligaments in your feet stay flexible and strong by stretching your feet, toes, and heels daily. You can also use massage to stimulate better blood circulation, break up scar tissue, and temporarily reduce pain.
Wear Comfortable, Properly Fitting Shoes
If you haven’t had a shoe fitting in a while, it’s time to check your feet! Feet change in size as we age, and footwear that’s too big or too small can contribute to heel pain. Take your foot measurement at the end of the day, when your feet are the largest (because of swelling). Make sure you choose footwear that has a thicker, supportive sole that doesn’t cramp your toes, and doesn’t rub while you walk.
Regularly Inspect and Maintain Your Feet
Keep a close eye on your feet for cuts and sores (especially if you are diabetic or are dealing with other conditions that affect the nerves or blood supply), keep your toenails short, and avoid walking barefoot on hard surfaces to minimize the strain on your arches.
While the aging process is inevitable, heel pain doesn’t have to be! By anticipating changes in your aging feet and taking steps to protect and support them, you can stay on your feet–and participate in your daily activities–without gritting your teeth!