Maybe it’s not Plantarfasciitis but Heel Fat Pad Syndrome

27 November 2019

Do you have heel pain? And think it is Plantar Fasciitis?

Maybe not, it might be another type of heel pain called the Heel Fat Pad Syndrome.

What´s the difference between the Plantar Fasciitis and Heel Fat Pad Syndrome?

As shown in the illustration, both structures are in the same area of the heel whereas the plantar fascia (illustrated as plantar apponeurosis) is covered by the fat pad. The plantar fascia attaches at the toes and forms the medial (longitudinal) arch of the foot. It provides static support of the medial arch and dynamic shock absorption. The main functions of the fad pad is shock absorption of stress during heel strike (heel contact during walking).

While both the heel fat pad and plantar fascia can be a source for heel pain, the contributing factors, clinical signs and symptoms and management for them differ.

Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is an overuse condition of the plantar fascia.

  • Contributing factors: It is often seen in people with foot deformities e.g. flat feet (low arches) or pes cavus (high arches). This deformities can lead to an excessive strain at the fascia during walking and hence cause pain. Other risk factors which can lead to increased stress in the fascia are inappropriate or non-supportive footwear, reduced ankle mobility, obesity and work related weight bearing.
  • Clinical signs and symptoms: A typical clinical sign is swelling of the plantar fascia and can be confirmed by ultrasound investigations. People with plantar fasciitis classically have a gradual onset of symptoms and feel their pain more on the inner side of the heel. Further symptoms are acute tenderness of the inner side of the heel, a tight plantar fascia and pain during stretching of the fascia. Especially the first steps in the morning or after rest are painful. The pain seems to decrease after a few minutes, and returns as the day proceeds and time on the feet increases.
  • Management: Due to the tightness of the plantar fascia that leads to pain, treatments involve stretching and massaging to release the tight fascia and calf muscles. Other management include avoiding aggravating activities (e.g. wearing heels), cold therapy (R.I.C.E), anti-inflammatory drugs, taping to to relief pain and lastly it is crucial to strengthen calf muscles that have weakened during the pain process. Some patients who are still symptomatic after conservative treatment might need surgery.

Heel Fat Pad Syndrome

Heel fat pad syndrome is often caused by a decreased elasticity of the fat pad. A fall onto the heel from a height or chronically excessive heel strike with poor footwear can also lead to heel pain.

  • Contributing factors: Increased age and weight decreases the elasticity of the fat pad.
  • Clinical signs and symptoms: Compared to plantar fascitis, fat pad related heel pain is felt more at the outer side of the heel especially when the heel gets loaded (heel strike). MRI investigations will reveal changes in the fat pad showing signs of swelling.
  • Management: Treatments aimed at unloading the heel by avoiding aggravating activities. In an acute situation the R.I.C.E. rule (Rest Ice Compression Elevation) should be applied and anti inflammatory drugs are given. Further treatment includes taping, the use of a silicone gel heel pad and use of appropriate footwear.

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  2. Cole, C, Seto, G & Gazewood, J 2005, ‘Plantar Fasciitis: Evidence-Based Review of Diagnosis and Therapy`, American Family Physician, vol. 72, no. 11, pp. 2237-42.
  3. Thomas, JL, Christensen,, JC, Kravitz,, SR, Mendicino, RW,  Schuberth, JM, Vanore, JV, Weil, LS, Zlotoff, HJ, Bouche, R & Baker, J 2010, ´ The Diagnosis and Treatment of Heel Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline–Revision 2010`,The Journal of Foot & Ankle Surgery, vol. 49, pp. 1-19.