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Understand your heel pain symptoms with Buoy, including 9 causes and common questions concerning your heel pain.
Symptoms of heel pain
Heel pain is an uncomfortable condition that can often interfere with daily activities such as walking and exercise.
Symptoms of heel pain can differ in regards to timing of the day, severity, and persistence.
Common characteristics and accompanying symptoms of heel pain
If you're experiencing heel pain, it can likely be described by:
- Tenderness at the back of the heel
- Pain localized to the bottom of the foot: This pain probably comes and goes
- Pain in the heel or middle of foot: This likely worsens with prolonged periods of standing
- Pain in the back of the heel: This likely worsens with activity or exercise
Once you notice heel pain symptoms, make an appointment with your physician promptly in order to get appropriate treatment and care.
What causes heel pain?
The heel may seem like a simple body part, but it actually has many different components.
- Calcaneus: The heel bone is the largest bone of the foot and supports a significant amount of the body.
- Achilles tendon: A tendon is a band of connective tissue that connects muscle to bone. The Achilles tendon is one of the thickest tendons in the body and connects the calf muscle to the heel bone.
- Plantar fascia: This is also a strong band of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot and connects the heel bone to the bones of your toes.
- Bursa: A bursa is a sac or pouch of fluid that lines bones and joints. It reduces friction and allows the bones to move easily against each other. The heel has a bursa between the Achilles tendon and the calcaneus.
- Skin: The external layer of the heel is the thick skin surrounding and protecting the heel. Over time it thickens with pressure and use, especially in people who often go barefoot.
Inflammation is often a principal cause of heel pain symptoms. Inflammation is the result of repetitive stress or use. Since the heel and foot are used on such a daily basis, they are easily susceptible to inflammatory heel pain causes.
- Connective tissue: Inflammation to the plantar fascia (also known as plantar fasciitis) can result in stabbing pain that is worst in the morning after the first few steps of the day. The heel pain usually improves throughout the day but can be triggered after long periods of inactivity such as sitting or standing. See this image for a good visual representation of the plantar fascia. Inflammation of the Achilles tendon often begins as a dull pain in the back of the heel that is most noticeable after running or other sports activities. This condition is called Achilles tendonitis.
- Bursa: Inflammation of the bursa (bursitis) often begins in the middle, underside of the foot and worsens if you bend your foot up or down.
Problems or deformities of the bones of the heel itself can result in chronic heel pain that may affect the way you walk.
- Spurs: Heel spurs are actually deposits of calcium that can often look like bony growths coming from the heel. They often appear in the area where the plantar fascia attaches to the calcaneus. They develop over time and are caused by muscle and ligament strain due to repetitive stress from walking, running or jumping. See this image for a visual representation.
- Bumps: Bursitis and chronic inflammation can result in abnormal bony growths at the back of the heel called posterior calcaneal exostosis. It is common in women and often the result of pressure from shoes that do not fit properly.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Plantar fasciitis is a common cause of heel pain that occurs due to collagen degeneration and inflammation in the tendons of the foot. Plantar fasciitis can interfere with daily activities such as walking and exercise, and, symptoms can become chronic and result in pain in other body ...
Posterior tibialis tendinopathy
The posterior tibialis tendon attaches the calf muscle to the bones on the underside of the foot. It provides stability and arch support. If this tendon is damaged, the result may be a flat, unstable foot.
Posterior tibialis tendinopathy is most often a sports injury, where the tendon becomes inflamed or torn through overuse or high impact.
Symptoms include pain down the ankle and into the foot, sometimes with swelling. The pain becomes worse with any activity, even standing or walking. When standing, the patient's arch will be collapsed and flat and the front of the foot will point outward. The patient will be unable to stand on the injured foot and raise the heel.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.
Treatment involves rest, over-the-counter pain relievers, orthotics (shoe pads,) braces, and sometimes steroid injections into the damaged tendon. Surgery can be tried, but tends to be complex and cannot always restore the tendon completely.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: swollen foot, pain in one foot, limping, pain in one ankle, spontaneous ankle pain
Symptoms that never occur with posterior tibialis tendinopathy: recent cutting accident
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Chronic idiopathic peripheral neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy refers to the feeling of numbness, tingling, and pins-and-needles sensation in the feet. Idiopathic means the cause is not known, and chronic means the condition is ongoing without getting better or worse.
The condition is most often found in people over age 60. Idiopathic neuropathy has no known cause.
Symptoms include uncomfortable numbness and tingling in the feet; difficulty standing or walking due to pain and lack of normal sensitivity; and weakness and cramping in the muscles of the feet and ankles.
Peripheral neuropathy can greatly interfere with quality of life, so a medical provider should be seen in order to treat the symptoms and reduce the discomfort.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests to rule out other conditions; and neurologic and muscle studies such as electromyography.
Treatment involves over-the-counter pain relievers; prescription pain relievers to manage more severe pain; physical therapy and safety measures to compensate for loss of sensation in the feet; and therapeutic footwear to help with balance and walking.
Top Symptoms: distal numbness, muscle aches, joint stiffness, numbness on both sides of body, loss of muscle mass
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Arthritis simply means inflammation of the joints. Because the feet and ankles have many small joints and carry the weight of the body, they are often the first place that arthritis appears.
Arthritis is caused by a breakdown in the protective cartilage at the end of each joint, so that the bones begin to wear against each other and the joint becomes stiff and painful. This breakdown may be due to simple wear and tear; an injury; or from rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition which causes the body to break down its own cartilage.
Symptoms include swelling, warmth, and redness in the joint, and pain with movement or with pressure on the joint.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as x-rays, CT scan, or MRI.
There is no cure for arthritis, but treatment is important because the symptoms can be managed to prevent further damage, ease pain, and improve quality of life. Treatment involves physical therapy, pain-relieving medications, and sometimes surgery to help repair damaged joints.
Top Symptoms: swollen ankle, swollen foot, joint stiffness, pain in one ankle, ankle stiffness
Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by att..
The Achilles tendon connects the back of the heel to the muscles of the calves. Achilles tendonitis can be an acute or chronic condition. The term tendonitis implies inflammatory cells in the region of the tendon. While this may be true in acute cases of tendon overuse or tendon ...
Septic arthritis is also called infectious arthritis. "Arthritis" simply means inflammation of a joint. In septic arthritis, the inflammation is caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. The most common is Staphylococcus aureus or staph. These agents reach the joints either from ...
Psoriatic arthritis is a condition which causes inflammation of the joints. In most circumstances, psoriatic arthritis presents between the ages of 30 and 50 years and occurs after the manifestation of the symptoms of psoriasis, which is a disease of the skin. Psoriatic arthritis..
Sever's Disease is inflammation of the heel in children due to overuse (typically due to sports). It's caused by the long bones growing faster than the muscles/tendons, creating tension in the Achilles tendon.
Top Symptoms: heel pain, pain in both feet, spontaneous ankle pain, difficulty moving the ankle
Symptoms that always occur with sever disease: heel pain
Symptoms that never occur with sever disease: cut on the foot
Heel pain treatments and relief
If you are experiencing heel pain, try the method below in order to relieve symptoms:
- Rest: Limit weight-bearing on the heel as much as possible.
- Ice: Put an ice pack on your heel every 15 minutes in order to reduce swelling or reduce heel pain.
- Compress: Wrap your heel with a wrap or protective brace that supports both the heel and ankle.
- Elevate: Raise your heel above the level of your heart to reduce swelling and give your foot a break.
When to see a doctor
However, if you continue to experience heel pain despite home remedies, see your physician for appropriate care.
- Pain medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help relieve heel pain.
- Physical therapy: Your physician may prescribe stretching exercises or a physical therapy/rehabilitation program to help you restore strength and stability to your heel.
- Surgery: If the treatments and methods above do not work, your physician may suggest surgery to repair the structures contributing to your heel pain symptoms.
Heel pain symptoms can be prevented with simple lifestyle changes such as:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Wearing comfortable shoes: Shoes should support and cushion the heel
- Stretching and warming up: Both before exercise and sports
- Massaging the soles of the feet or using an ice pack: Especially after prolonged sports activity or a long day of work
Heel pain FAQs
Why do I have heel pain in the morning?
Heel pain in the morning is a common sign of plantar fasciitis — an inflammation of the thick protective membrane just underneath the skin of the foot. Plantar fasciitis is likely caused by increased pressure placed on the foot by such actions as prolonged standing, jumping, flat feet, and reduced flexing of the ankle upward.
Is heel pain a symptom of diabetes?
Yes, heel pain can be a symptom of diabetes following the development of a "Charcot joint," which is a joint that is damaged after uncontrolled diabetes damages the nerves of the foot — causing joint collapse. A Charcot joint, however, is caused by a lack of ability to sense pressure when standing and results in an ability to perceive when one is placing too much pressure on a particular part of the foot.
Why do I have heel pain when standing or walking?
You may have heel pain for a variety of reasons, including plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendinitis. Differentiating between these two causes can be done based on location and the history of trauma or injury to the affected heel. Heel pain in the back of the heel is usually attributed to Achilles tendinitis, while plantar fasciitis is usually along the bottom of the heel.
Do certain shoes cause heel pain more than others?
Heel pain can be caused by high heels, especially when worn by young women whose heel bones are still developing. Heel pain may also be caused by shoes with inadequate padding, causing stress fractures of the heel bone or the small bones of the foot.
What causes heel pain when pressure is applied?
Heel pain when pressure is applied can be a sign of a stress fracture of the heel, which can be caused by repeatedly landing on the heel when jumping or running. The actual sensation of pain is often caused by sensitization of the nerves supplying that stretch of heel, coupled with pressure from either touch or standing.
Questions your doctor may ask about heel pain
- Have you ever been told you have flat feet?
- Has a bunion formed on your foot?
- What is your body mass?
- How would you explain the cause of your foot pain?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Dr. Gambrah-Lyles is a resident pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (2019). She graduated cum laude and received her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Spanish from Washington University in St. Louis (2013). Her research explores the intersections between neurology, public health, and infectious disease. She has investigated nutrition and cerebral palsy in Botswana, and completed a year-long project in Brazil, researching growth and developmental outcomes of Zika virus infection in pediatric patients as a Doris Duke International Scholar. Dr. Gambrah-Lyles speaks four languages, loves staying active, and enjoys sharing her love for medicine through teaching and writing.
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- Rogers LC, Frykberg RG, Armstrong DG, et al. The Charcot foot in diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2011;34(9):2123-9. NCBI Link