Foot pain from Plantar Fasciitis can range from mild, occasional annoyance to absolute agony. If you’ve been diagnosed with this condition, you’ve felt the sometimes searing pain in the morning when you take your first steps. For many, that’s as bad as it gets—but it’s bad enough. Plantar Fasciitis splints are one of the treatment options that help many people overcome this discouraging pain while they are healing.
Plantar Fasciitis (also commonly known as Heel Spur Syndrome) results from straining the broad ligament that runs along the bottom of your foot from the heel bone to the base of the toes. This tissue, the plantar fascia, is subject to great stressors and tension, and can normally handle everything we throw at it. But sometimes the dozens of little injuries it suffers are more than it can repair by natural regenerative processes—particularly when our lifestyle contributes to those injuries.
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Some of the factors that contribute to the development of Plantar Fasciitis are easy to pinpoint, such as excess weight, intense exercise like marathon running or playing basketball, or that time last week when you ran for the bus and felt something “give”.
Others are more elusive—a sudden weight gain, as in pregnancy. Tight calf muscles, whether due to lack of exercise or wearing high heels. Long periods of standing or walking on hard surfaces, as many of us are required to do in our work.
That’s one of the reasons so many people develop Plantar Fasciitis at some point in their lives—there are nearly limitless “causes”, including getting older. For everyone, normal activities eventually start taking an abnormal toll on certain areas of the body.
Fortunately, there is an equally broad field of solutions for the pain, and one of those is Plantar Fasciitis splints. Doctors and therapists recommend a conservative approach to treat this condition, relying on things like ice and rest, gentle stretching, lifestyle changes, and healthy diets to maintain all your ligaments and muscles in their best condition.
Splints fall into the gentle stretching category. Since Plantar Fasciitis pain is often worst first thing in the morning, using a splint at night while you sleep makes a lot of sense. There’s no research that points to splints as a “cure” for the condition, but they’re definitely in the useful end of the spectrum of treatments that you can try.
There are many different splint designs (and price points), but all attempt to keep your plantar fascia extended while you sleep, so that it does not contract to the extent it would otherwise. When you wake up, your foot will not be so tight, and theoretically you will not experience the pain of coaxing a stubborn tendon into normal operating position. Many people swear by them; some people find them not helpful at all. Every individual’s case is unique, so if you’re willing to spend from $20 to $80 for a splint to potentially ease your pain and speed healing, read on.
What to Look for in a Splint for Plantar Fasciitis
There are basically three types of splints to choose from.
The first type is a rather medieval-looking appliance whose purpose is obvious: to “pull” the toes up toward the shin. This is called dorsiflexion—the upward movement of the foot at the ankle joint. These splints provide two anchors—one on the top of the foot, the other somewhere above the ankle. A line is attached to each anchor, and this is the way the angle of the foot is controlled.
The optimum angle for night splints is 90 degrees, so that your foot is exactly perpendicular to your leg. When we sleep, the toes tend to point down to varying degrees, a relaxed pose. This shortens the plantar fascia. To reduce pain in the morning, it’s necessary to keep that ligament stretched out to prevent the sudden shock of your first step snapping it to attention.
The second type of Plantar Fasciitis splint is more like a cast. It encases some or all of the foot and some or all of the lower leg. At the ankle, it may have a solid back, or work like a hinge to permit adjustment. These tend to be a bit bulkier, although there are many, many styles to choose from. Some are made out of hard materials on the outside, similar to athletic knee or shin pads; others are more soft and plush, at least next to the skin.
This type may be dorsal (covering the top of the foot and shin) or plantar (covering the bottom of the foot, heel and back of the lower leg). The distinction is important, because a dorsal type is obviously easier to walk in and a more appropriate choice if you want to wear the splint around the house during the day, or if you need to make frequent nighttime visits to the bathroom.
The third and last type of splint is little more than a suggestion of control, more like a firm wrap that make it difficult for the foot to assume its natural sleeping position. These typically cover half the foot, the heel, and the ankle. These tend to be the sleekest-looking option, and appear to be most comfortable and “natural”, but they may not provide enough correction for severe cases. They are also the most versatile, since they are easier to walk in than the other two.
Look also for splints that go high enough on the leg to provide good stabilization/immobilization techniques. Some splints are made barely ankle-high for reasons of comfort. These may not be a good choice if you have a severe case of Plantar Fasciitis that needs a lot of strength to keep your foot in the desired position.
Plantar Fasciitis Splint Suggestions
The splint you ultimately decide to try will depend on a couple of things: how severe your morning pain is, how much you can afford to spend, how long you’ve been suffering from the pain of Plantar Fasciitis, and any recommendations from your doctor or podiatrist. Here are a few of the more popular splints on the market, from least expensive to most expensive. The type of splint varies within that cost category. Since many splints combine features of all three types, there is no attempt to classify them strictly by type.
Tuli Cheetah is a one-size-fits-all, lightweight ankle wrap that can be used for walking or as a night splint. Velcro closures, heel cup and firm support are featured in this product billed as a “proven favorite of gymnasts and dancers.”
Bird & Cronin splints come in small, medium and large sizes. The lightweight design makes it a more comfortable nighttime option than some of this type. It has a non-slip sole for those late-night trips to the bathroom, although no appliance of this design will be easy to walk in, especially for older people.
Swede-O Deluxe Padded Night Splint bills itself as one of the most comfortable sleep/rest splints on the market. A removable wedge allows the ability to increase dorsiflexion by 5 degrees. The soft padded cover protects skin from irritation, as do the wide bands around shin, ankle and foot.
Bird & Cronin NAP Night Splint is a latex-free product that leaves the heel free. Some users report that belly sleepers will find no benefit to this design, as the foot will not retain the desired position without a heel cup. For those who sleep on their back or side, however, the lack of bulk and confinement is appreciated.
AlphaBrace Night Splint is like a half-cast right-angle that cradles the back of the leg, heel and foot bottom. The front and top are left open with straps to keep the foot immobilized. The soft foam interior, along with the open front design, allows free circulation of air and prevents heat and moisture buildup.
Freedom Dorsal Night Splint offers a gel pad for the top of the foot and wide calf and toe straps for a thoroughly comfortable nighttime splint. This brand provides more room in the toe area for wider feet, and a flexible shell for easier nighttime walking.
Thermoskin Plantar FXT is a soft bootie made of a material that keeps skin warm. The manufacturer claims this helps the plantar fascia to stretch and heal, and the slim bootie design is a nice alternative to bulkier splints.
Remember that most people (90%) find relief from Plantar Fasciitis pain within a year, and that it is very important to be active or even proactive in your own treatment. Even if your doctor recommends a Plantar Fasciitis splint to help speed the healing of your foot, don’t assume that that and that alone will cure your condition. Continue to modify your risk factors (activity level, weight, a variety of stretches during the day and before any exercise) and apply other appropriate treatments as you come across them and if they make your foot feel better. Shoe inserts, heel cups, applying ice and resting your foot as much as possible will all certainly not cause any harm and might be just the thing to complement any benefits you might realize from using night splints.