What Are Bruised Heels?
The largest bone in the foot is the heel bone. Physicians refer to this bone by its Latin name, the calcaneus. Of all the bones in the foot, it is the calcaneus that bears the most of our weight when we are standing, walking, jumping, and running. For this reason, it is more prone to injuries than other bones in the foot. The word contusion simply means a bruise. However, in the case of heel bruises, the underlying injury may be a flesh bruise, a bone bruise, or either one of these accompanied by a fracture of the calcaneus itself.
The absolute most common type of foot injury due to athletics is a sprain of the ankle, but heel bruises are also common and can be very painful. They can also lead to difficulties engaging in physical activities as well as the normal tasks required in daily life.
This condition is called Foot Pad Contusion or more simply ‘Bruised Heels’. It’s a very painful and very mobility limiting condition that, despite the simple sounding name, causes a lot of problems for the suffers. Think of a Foot Pad Condition as the mother of all heel bruises.
We’ve comprehensively updated this article for 2016 with new information and new treatment recommendations.
Recommended for Heel Pain / Fat Pad Contusion
Specifically designed for people with bruised heels, these help you recover from that condition while still being able to be mobile on your feet. There are fancier, more expensive solutions out there, but in terms of price and effectiveness, these are a cheap, no frills solution to your problem
Symptoms of a Bruised Heel or Foot Pad Contusion
There is a wide range of injuries associated with the heel. Damage to the heel bone or the fat pad covering it can vary from a mild bruise of the fat pad only, which will cause no lasting damage, to a severe fracture of the bone itself. In between these extremes it is possible to have a bone bruise or stress fracture of the calcaneus, both of which are regarded as moderately serious conditions .
Common symptoms of heel bruises include all of the following:
- Swelling in the heel area
- Swelling around the heel area
- Pain while walking, running, or jumping
- Pain while standing still
- A sensation of tenderness in the heel area, especially when it is subjected to pressure. This may be true even when the pressure is mild — for example, when a patient presses against the heel area using his or her fingers.
A more serious symptom is possible displacement of the fat pad covering the heel bone, meaning that the pad itself can shift to one side or the other, leaving part of the heel bone without its usual cushioning protection. If this has happened, there will be a flattened spot on the heel. Comparing the injured foot to the uninjured one will make this flat spot an obvious anomaly.
Men or women who continue to engage in vigorous exercise despite the warning signs listed above might develop another symptom, one which is much more serious. Inflammation may set into the outside perimeter of the calcaneus. This area is referred to as the periosteum. Once inflammation has set in, it may become a chronic condition. At this point, the athlete has developed a debilitating injury.
What Causes a Bruised Heel or Foot Pad Contusion?
Heel bruises may result from either a series of repetitive small injuries or one single severe event. In moderate cases the injury will be restricted to the fat pad alone or to a bruise on the surface of the heel bone, but serious cases can involve a true fracture of the bone itself or even several fractures at once.
While there are many different factors that can contribute to your Fat Pad Contusions / Heel Bruises, there are, when you come down to it, two main causes of heel bruises:
1. Repetitive motions.
These layer strain onto the heel and over time can cause injury. The phrase “repetitive stress injury” is apt in the case of foot pad contusions. Repetitive motions that can cause heel bruises include running or walking long distances at a single stretch. Marathon runners frequently develop one variety or another of the condition.
2. Sudden strong impacts.
In many cases, the sudden impact is associated with landing too hard on one’s feet, especially onto a hard surface. Athletes engaged in jumping events are at risk for developing heel bruises. Anyone who lands on their heels from a significant height, such as from up on a ladder, is also at risk.
A more extreme example of this type of causation is associated with sky diving, a thrill sport that entails many serious risks of injury to a variety of bodily systems. In the case of the calcaneus or heel bone, a difficult landing during sky diving can cause it to shatter in several places at once. This would produce immediate severe pain as well as swelling and would require an extended convalescence during which walking would be ill advised if not impossible. However, a permanent deformation of the bone is not likely to result.
Within the two main causes listed above, there are some associated and related causes:
- Lack of adequate footwear for the physical activity undertaken.
The classic example of this when it comes to heel bruises is participation in the military. Hours spent marching can lead to repetitive stress injuries, particularly when the shoes or boots worn do not have sufficient padding or other shock absorbing features. A general rule of thumb is that the harder the surface upon which an athlete or soldier will be running or marching, the more important it is to have shoes that provide shock absorption in order to shield the heel from excessive stress and strain.
- Being overweight
Excessive weight strains all body systems and places additional stress on weight bearing bones such as the calcaneus, making them more vulnerable to injury.
As we get older, our bones become more brittle, particularly if we are not getting enough calcium or the calcium is not adequately absorbed.
- Going barefoot
This is particularly ill advised during athletic activities. Wear shoes that are well cushioned and when they begin to wear out, replace them. You can tell that shoes are beginning to wear out not only from their visual appearance but also from the feel of your foot inside them when you exercise. If you begin to suspect there is less cushioning now than previously, you are probably right. Runners who decide to go the minimalist running route (i.e. barefoot running), may suffer from Bruised Heels initially.
- Training surfaces that are uneven
These can produce sudden shocks of stress to the foot, which is adapted to generally expect a level surface to walk or run upon. Think of how difficult it is to walk in sand, which constantly shifts its surface characteristics, and you will have a sense of how uneven surfaces can lead to foot strain. Hard surfaces are also a problem, although in some sporting activities such as standard tennis, they cannot be avoided.
- Sudden changes of direction
These can subject the foot to unexpected stresses for which the muscles and fat pad aren’t prepared to compensate.
How to Prevent of Heel Bruises
The single most important step you can take to prevent heel bruises is to wear proper shoes. They should be sized correctly for your feet and include enough cushioning and padding so that you can comfortably complete your tasks and / or sporting activities. For some sports, special shoes are available; these are designed specifically with that sport in mind. Avid athletes would be wise to invest in such shoes; even dabblers will often find them of great benefit. In the absence of sport specific shoes, a general purpose running shoe is appropriate for most sporting activities.
Another important consideration in prevention is the fact that shoes should be replaced frequently to avoid repetitive stress injuries. Runners in particular should be vigilant to be sure that their current shoes still have all the shock absorption qualities now that they had when new. If not, purchase new.
Other basic prevention measures include taking part in only those sporting activities that are appropriate for your age and physical condition, and losing weight.
How to (Self) Diagnose for Bruised Heels
Most doctors can diagnose a heel bruise, but you may be referred to a sports medicine specialist for treatment. Visual inspection along with a thorough medical questionnaire and interview to ascertain your health history is usually sufficient to diagnose a simple bruise.
In cases where the sports medicine specialist has cause to suspect that a fracture may be involved, a bone scan or x-ray may be ordered. X-rays are considered a definitive test when it comes to diagnosing a heel bruise that also encompasses a fracture. More advanced diagnostic tests such as magnetic resonance imaging are usually not required.
Initial treatment will consist of measures designed to decrease swelling and alleviate pain. These measures will sound familiar to anyone who has had a sprained ankle or indeed, any kind of bone injury to areas of the foot. They include common procedures outlines in any first aid manual:
- Ice (and later on, heat)
- Orthotics (heel cup inserts or full foot orthotic inserts)
These are basically treatments you do right away, usually for a few minutes or a few days. They are the first level of treatments that you will use to determine if your condition improves or not. You may need to move to ongoing treatments if these one off treatments don’t work or combine them.
Experts recommend that icing take place for no longer than twenty minutes at a time in order to avoid causing cold injuries to the flesh surrounding the heel bruise. Applying ice for this span of time every two or three hours is usually sufficient to reduce swelling and assist with the patient’s pain level. It is common to continue ice treatment for two or three days.
Ice treatment may involve the direct application of an ice bag or ice gel pack (stored in the freezer to cause it to chill). Another method is to immerse the foot in water into which several ice cubes have been placed.
Ice Treatment Then Heat Treatment
An interesting twist to the treatment regimen is that after two or three days of ice treatment, the patient should be switched to a heat treatment. This should continue for another two or three days. Heat may be applied directly using an electrical heating pad or even an electric blanket for those who do not have a pad and may not wish to invest in one. An even more inexpensive alternative is to plunge the foot into heated water. Be sure that the heel area is completely immersed and that the water is not hot enough to burn.
Rest involves encouraging the injured party to avoid all use of the heel. This includes walking as well as athletic activities. If walking absolutely cannot be avoided, then it is acceptable to utilize crutches; the goal is to keep all weight off the injured heel. This phase of treatment should continue until the patient can place weight on the heel without experiencing pain. In this case, pain is the body’s warning system, letting the patient know that more healing needs to occur and that rest, therefore, should be continued.
When Are You Ready to Put Weight on Your Heel?
When the patient or athlete first begins to put weight on the heel, even if the process is pain free, he or she should adopt a gradual approach. Do not jump right back into all your previous activities, but go slowly so that your heel bones can adjust back to full usage over time.
Ongoing Treatment Options
When the patient is ready to resume normal activities, it may be advisable to use some protective devices that are designed to shift weight away from the center of the heel. This will allow for standing, walking, and running with less stress being placed on the heel bone itself, as well as the fat pad covering and cushioning it. The two most common such devices are:
- The protective donut
- The heel cup
The patient should also make sure that footwear is well cushioned and appropriate to the activity being undertaken. All of the other caveats discussed above also apply. Patients should avoid hard or uneven surfaces when possible and make efforts to lose weight.
A Word About Pain & Sports & Recovery
Unfortunately, athletes in particular are sometimes encouraged to ignore pain and keep working out despite it. This is extremely ill advised in many types of injuries, including heel bruises. Exercising or engaging in sporting activities when the heel is in a painful state can lead to a host of other injuries, some of which are quite serious, so do let yourself heal. If not, you may find yourself in a position where you have developed a severe condition and have no alternative but to face a much longer convalescence than you would have had initially. A full return to sports activities should not take place until a physician has authorized it.
Best Orthotics / Products for Bruised Heels
Some of the home treatment options include heel cups and protective donuts.
Indeed, physicians may advise the use of these products as well; they are not merely for home care. Such products are widely available at pharmacies and discount stores, as well as online.
We recommend, for the best and biggest selection (and to save money) just to buy one (or more) of these products on Amazon, however. Chances are, you won’t find most of them at your local pharmacy because they are specialized products.
Some of the products below are rated on amazon with their highest rating: 5 of 5 stars while others come recommended by actual users who have stated these products helped with their Bruised Heel condition.
These are more on the pricey range at about $60 USD, but you do get what you pay for, and in this case, you are paying for some serious comfort. These are different than the usual generic heel insert orthotics in that they are CUSTOM. They are a moldable gel plastic that you simply immerse in hot water then after a brief cool down, place them on your feet and step on them — the plastic is soft and forms and stays in the shape of your foot. This gives a FAR, FAR better fit than any of the other off-the-shelf solutions. It’s especially good for people with high arches, so if you have high arches, this should be your go to solution.
Orthaheel makes some of the most comfortable shoes, and shoes specifically designed for people with foot pain problems like plantar fasciitis. These are top quality, top comfort FULL sized inserts (i.e. they cover the entire foot, not just the heel). If you have bruised heels or plantar fasciitis, or heel spurs, I highly recommend these to you, especially if you need a FULL sized insert rather than just a heel cup / heel pad solution. I personally prefer full sized orthotics because they feel more natural while heel cups make me feel weird when walking — but that’s just me.
Alternatively, you can try the Vionic with Orthaheel inserts, which use Orthaheel technology but with a slightly different shape/look/fit.
These are specialized heel cups that provide support and motion control for plantar fasciitis, specifically in your heel area. However, these orthotics can also double down as a heel protector and work just as well to provide more padding if you have sore or bruised heels. In fact because these are specifically designed for PF, we recommend this as our top pick for bruised heels because you can also use them for PF. These are very higher rated on Amazon with many of the customers swearing it’s helped with their PF condition.
Produced by Everything Track & Field, these heel cups received a 5 out of 5 rating from every person who evaluated them. They range in price from $5.00 to $23.00 depending on how many heel cups you purchase in a single pack and come in both regular size for adults and “junior” size for younger athletes.
These are a cheap, no frills solution. NOthing fancy, but effective.
These heel cups are made of hard plastic and accomplish the job of nudging the fat pad on your heel back over the heel bone itself so that the heel is cushioned and physical activity becomes more comfortable. They do this by providing a rigid surface to either side of the heel, which keeps the fat pad from slipping sideways or spreading out too thin under pressure. The M-F Heel Cup Protector is recommended for slowing the advance of many problems associated with heel damage, which if not halted can change your way of standing and lead to problems far from the heel, such as in the lower back. They fit inside tennis shoes or any other type of shoe with a closed back.
If you are looking for a gel pack (cold OR hot treatment for your heel), we recommend the Elasto Gel Wrap. You can use this as either a cold ice pack treatment or a hot gel pack spot treatment for your heel. It’s also very easy to use because the whole thing comes as a sort of foot wrap you step into and strap up. This is NOT designed for you to walk around on though, but rather to either use as a cold or hot treatment while you are stationary. Great for Bruised Heels and Plantar Fasciitis and the fact you can use this for both hot AND cold treatments saves you money and having to use two different products. This product is also highly rated by users and has a good word on helping with Plantar Fasciitis pain and heel brusing.
Foot health expert Dr. Scholl’s produces these orthotics (shoe inserts). Rather than using the heel cup solution outlined above, these inserts are protective donuts that are affixed to the heel and provide cushioning. They retail for about $8.40 each, making them very economical. Also appropriate for the care of plantar fasciitis and heel spurs, Dr. Scholl’s heel pain relief orthotics provide immediate relief from pain – and relief that last all day. Since these are a physical rather than a chemical solution to pain, there’s no danger of liver damage or other health problems that can result from taking too much pain medication. The standard size of these orthotics fits women who wear shoe sizes ranging from 5 to 12, making them very versatile.
These heel cups were rated with 4 out of 5 stars. You might think that means you should choose the M-F cup listed above instead, but what the Tuli’s cups have as an advantage is that they are specifically designed for people who weigh more than 175 pounds. They provide for absorption of shocks and bumps even for a person of large size who may be experiencing significant issues with the weight bearing bones in the foot – primarily the heel. These cups are also recommended for the treatment of plantar fasciitis and will reduce heel pain in a variety of injury situations.
These are under 15 bucks and can be used for hot or cold spot treatments. They are simply gel packs with no bracing or inserts to hold them to your foot. But if you are looking for a cheap, quality, no-frills gel pack for hot or cold treatments (you’ll have to step on these or hold them to your heel yourself since they don’t come with a brace or method to hold these to your foot), then these are a recommended solution.