Plantar fasciitis is the most common cause of heel pain, resulting from the inflammation of the ligament that attaches your heel bone to your toes, the band of tissue right in the arch of your foot. This injury can come on unexpectedly, but unlike a sprain can be very difficult to fully heal. Because you’re on your feet every day, it’s hard to rest this ligament, and because it’s always strung (like a bowstring) across the bottom of your foot, it can be getting stressed even when you’re at rest, shrinking and tightening up in a way that will cause pain as soon as you go to use it again. This article will provide tips for pain relief, but more importantly some targeted plantar fasciitis stretches meant to help work the right muscles and tendons from head to toe, so that you can get realigned and back on your feet.
The Problem with Plantar Fasciitis
The reason plantar fasciitis is harder to heal than a standard sprain is because the underlying cause is hard to pin down. Inflammation of the plantar fascia can be caused by anything from improper footwear, to a misalignment in your back, to tightness in your calf muscle or Achilles tendon. If you don’t know the exact cause, it’s harder to find the right solution.
The stretches discussed here may actually help pinpoint the source of the problem—for example, if stretching your calf muscles immediately relieves your pain, you may have found the culprit. Outside of that, review your footwear choices to see if you may need more support, which you can get by either buying better-suited shoes or putting some inserts into the soles you have now. Another possibility is to purchase some support socks or night splints to wear to bed, to help lessen the signature plantar fasciitis symptom, which is shooting heel pain the moment you wake up and try to limp out of bed.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons suggests buying new shoes regularly, and advises that proper support and fit are important to avoid foot pain. If you have other concerns such as flat feet, high arches, or a tendency towards overpronation or supination in the way you walk, you may want to consult with a specialist for advice on proper footwear.
Plantar Fasciitis Stretches
These plantar fasciitis exercises are simple, short, and can sometimes provide immediate relief from pain. Get into the habit of doing these leg and foot stretches as part of a regular stretching routine, and you might not just see your pain lessen, you may also speed up a full recovery from the injury that’s causing you so much trouble.
These stretches can be done with no extra items or objects. Just take off your shoes and find a wall to use for stability.
Up Against the Wall
In your bare feet, find a clear section of wall at least as wide as your shoulders.
- Press both palms against the wall at shoulder height and width.
- Step one foot back—this is the leg you’ll be stretching.
- Press your back foot’s heel to the ground, keeping the leg straight.
- Slowly bend the front leg’s knee, and you should feel a stretch running all along the underside of your back leg, from hip to heel.
- Repeat this stretch with your other leg as well, 5 times each.
This is a full-leg stretch. To focus it to the calf and Achilles tendon, simply modify step #3 and bend the knee of the leg in the stepped-back position towards the floor. You should then feel the stretch along the back of your ankle specifically.
Stretch like a Flamingo
If you have the balance for it, or can use a wall or countertop to hold onto for support, try this one-legged stretch.
- Stand alongside a wall or countertop and use one arm or hand to brace yourself.
- Plant the opposite foot flat on the ground, while raising up the other (like a ballerina or flamingo).
- Bend at the hip until your torso is parallel to the floor.
- Hold that stretch, or keep lowering your head and shoulders as far as possible to stretch the back of your standing leg.
- Turn around so your other side is against the wall/counter, and repeat with the other leg.
This stretch may also help your hips and lower back, stretching them, and sometimes popping your hip pleasantly back into place.
Toe the Line
This plantar fascia stretch, unlike the others which stretch the entire leg, directly focuses on the area that’s causing you pain.
- Stand in front of a wall, and press the big toe of one foot directly against the wall, leaving the heel on the ground.
- The ball of your foot should be an inch or two above the ground (more or less above where a baseboard might be).
- Press against the wall, and you should feel a stretch in the arch of the foot along the plantar fascia ligament.
- Repeat with your other foot, 5 times each.
If this stretch causes too much pain, there is another version of it in the next section that may be gentler, as it’s from a sitting position.
These are stretches that can be done sitting on a chair, bed, couch, or floor, with some items that can either be easily bought or found in your home.
Pull My Big Toe
No extra items needed here, just a seat you can cross your legs on.
- Place one ankle on the opposite knee.
- With your hand, grab your big toe.
- Gently pull back the big toe towards the top of the foot (you can use your other hand to brace your heel, essentially pulling them away from one another).
- Hold for 15 seconds, then repeat with the other foot, 5 times each.
Even if you don’t have plantar fasciitis pain in your other foot or leg, it is better to stretch both sides of the body evenly. Sometimes plantar fasciitis comes from being misaligned, for example the danger of limping is that you’re favoring one side of your body more than the other, which may then lead to back pain. Limbering up one leg or foot and ignoring the other might work against you in the long run.
Throw in the Towel
You can do this next exercise with a scarf, bath towel, dish towel, or other sort of strap, like a belt.
- Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you.
- Hold a rolled towel (or scarf or belt) by both ends, and place the middle of it under the ball of your foot.
- With your knee straight, pull the towel gently towards your body, stretching the plantar fascia ligament.
- Hold for 20 seconds, repeat with the other leg 2-4 times each.
This stretch like many of the others on this list will also improve your overall flexibility.
Here is where some props come into play. Using a tennis ball, golf ball, rolling pin, or foam roller, you can complete these stretches while sitting at your desk or dining room table.
- While sitting with both feet flat on the floor, place a tennis ball, golf ball, rolling pin, foam roller, etc. under one foot.
- Roll your foot over the object, stretching and massaging your plantar fascia.
- Increase the pressure as needed for 2 minutes.
- Repeat with the other foot.
Keep a tennis ball handy and you can do this absent-mindedly during long periods of prolonged rest like working at a desk all day, and drastically cut down on painful plantar fasciitis flare-ups.
Anti-Inflammatory Icing Options and Miscellaneous Tips
Here are some other miscellaneous tips and suggestions for building up strength in your foot and ankle, as well as ways to reduce inflammation without relying on pain relievers like the anti-inflammatory medications ibuprofen or naproxen.
Losing Your Marbles
Do a marble pickup exercise to strengthen your foot.
- Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the ground.
- Place 20 marbles near enough (maybe in a shallow tray so they won’t escape from you).
- Pick up each marble with one foot and place it into a bowl.
- Repeat with all 20 marbles for the other foot.
Scrunch and Bunch
Use this towel scrunching exercise for increased strength as well (or if you don’t have any marbles).
- Place a small towel on a hard, flat floor surface, and sit upright near it.
- With the toes of one foot, scrunch the towel towards you.
- Then with the same foot, push the towel away so that it flattens back out.
- Weight the end of the towel with a can of soup or small dumbbell to increase the resistance.
Ice, Ice, Maybe
On days when the pain from plantar fasciitis is particularly bad, you may want to ice the area with an ice pack, and that is definitely advisable. However, you can also ice your foot while stretching.
- If rolling an object under your foot to stretch and massage it, make that object a cold soda can or a frozen water bottle to ice while you stretch. Wear socks while doing this to avoid damaging your skin with frostbite.
- Buy specialty ice packs that you can strap to your foot and wear while walking around your home in bare feet or socks. This gives you not only the support of an insert, but also cools the inflamed area.
- Learn how to apply athletic tape to aid your arch support as you stretch, workout, or return to running, or as a bracing aid while you sleep.
Make Stretching a Habit
It’s beneficial to stretch both before and after your workout, but with plantar fasciitis, it’s also a good idea to stretch before and after you go to bed. Not only will stretching before sleep lessen your morning stiffness, stretching when you first wake up is a great way to get your blood flowing and your energy going for the rest of your day.
Also, since the first steps of the morning are often the worst with plantar fasciitis, you can also do some stretching before you even get out of bed. The towel stretch is one that can be done immediately after sitting up, and the toe stretch is another. You can even buy a little handheld foot massager just to give your plantar fascia a wake-up call, or you can make sure your house shoes, sandals, or slippers have inserts or proper arch support, so you can start stretching as soon as your feet touch down.
The stretches, the icing, and the inserts ultimately add up to less pain and hopefully a speedy recovery from this stress injury to the tissue of your foot. With the right preparation and support, you can literally walk it off!