Plantar heel pain, also known as plantar fasciitis, is generally described as sharp or stabbing, and worse in the morning. The pain can decrease with activity but can return after long periods of standing or after getting up from a seated position.
Just because this condition is referred to as plantar fasciitis, does not mean that the plantar fascia is the primary contributor to symptoms. Entrapment of the tibial nerve and its branches in the tarsal tunnel (along the inner leg behind the ankle) may mimic symptoms of plantar fasciitis. Inside the tunnel, the nerve splits into three different segments – one nerve continues to the heel, the other two continue to the bottom of the foot. Entrapment of any of these nerves may contribute to the complex clinical picture of plantar fasciitis (Plaza-Manzano et al., 2019).
A thorough health history intake can be done to gather information about patients’ limitations, course of pain, and prognostic factors for delayed recovery (e.g., low self-efficacy, fear of movement, ineffective coping strategies, fear-avoidance, pain catastrophizing) and answers to health-related questions. Screen patients to identify those with a higher likelihood of serious pathology/red flag conditions. Then undertake a physical examination: neurological screening test, assess mobility and/or muscle strength.
Incorporate one or more of the following outcome measurements when assessing and monitoring patient progress:
- Self-Rated Recovery Question
- Patient Specific Functional Scale
- Brief Pain Inventory (BPI)
- Visual Analog Scale (VAS)
- Lower Extremity Functional Scale (LEFS)
- Foot and Ankle Ability Measure
- Foot and Ankle Disability Index
Incorporate one or more of the following physical examination tools and interpret examination results in the context of all clinical exam findings.
- Windlass Test
- Plantar Fascia Test
- Tinel’s Sign
Provide reassurance and patient education on condition and management options and encourage the use of active approaches (lifestyle, physical activity) to help manage symptoms.
A massage therapy treatment plan should be implemented based on patient-specific assessment findings and patient tolerance. Structures to keep in mind while assessing and treating patients suffering from plantar heel pain may include neurovascular structures and investing fascia of:
- Plantar Fascia
- Adductor Hallucis
- Flexor Hallucis Brevis
- Metatarsals & Interossei
- Peroneals (peroneus longus, peroneus brevis)
- Hamstring Muscles (semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris)
- Anterior Compartment of the Leg (tibialis anterior, extensor hallucis longus, extensor digitorum longus, peroneus tertius)
- Superficial Posterior Compartment of the Leg (gastrocnemius, soleus, plantaris)
- Deep Posterior Compartment of the Leg (flexor hallucis longus, flexor digitorum longus, tibialis posterior, popliteus)
- Ankle Joint (the talocrural joint, subtalar joint and the inferior tibiofibular joint)
Massage therapists not only provide hands-on treatment they can also develop self-management programs to help patients manage symptoms. Stretching, foot taping and educational interventions are part of the core approach for people with plantar heel pain. Also intrinsic foot muscles play a crucial role in supporting the medial longitudinal arch, providing the foot stability and flexibility for shock absorption. Foot core exercises can help recondition foot muscles (McKeon et al., 2015).
- Toe Adduction & Abduction
- Doming & Arching
- Toe Splaying
- Big Toe Press
- Reverse Tandem Gait
- Vele’s Forward Lean
Current best practice recommendations are that plantar fascia stretching, foot taping and educational interventions should be the primary treatment for people with plantar heel pain (Morrissey et al., 2021). In addition evidence also suggests that massage therapy (joint mobilization and soft tissue massage) is helpful in improving function and reducing plantar heel pain (Fraser et al., 2018).
In cases that involve nerve entrapment, a massage therapist may use a specialized technique called neural mobilization. The goal of neural mobilization is to free the entrapped nerve by mobilization of the nerve itself or muscles that surround the nerve. There is research to support the use of neural mobilization. A 2017 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy showed that nerve mobilizations are an effective treatment approach for patients with back, neck and foot pain (Basson et al., 2017).
Massage Sloth: Massage Tutorial – Myofascial Release for Plantar Fasciitis and Heel Pain
Contemporary multimodal massage therapists are uniquely suited to incorporate a number of rehabilitation strategies for plantar heel pain based on patient-specific assessment findings including, but not limited to:
- Manual Therapy (soft tissue massage, neural mobilization, joint mobilization)
- Education that is Person-Centered (e.g., biopsychosocial model of health and disease, self-efficacy beliefs, active coping strategies)
- Stretching & Loading Programs (e.g., concentric, eccentric, isometric exercises)
- Hydrotherapy (hot & cold)
- Self-Management Strategies (e.g., engaging in physical activity and exercise, social activities, and healthy sleep habits)
References and Sources
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