John Lackey, right-handed starting pitcher for the World Champion Chicago Cubs, will be 39 years old in October. He is dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, yet will start Tuesday’s game against the Braves after getting some extended All Star Break rest. Lackey was effective over six innings in his last start on July 5th before going on the 10-day DL the following day. This will be his first start since being activated.
Baseball players have successfully played through fasciitis before, Albert Pujols being one of the most visible and recent examples. But eventually Pujols succumbed to surgery as his condition worsened while he continued to play (even with a reduced role as DH). The condition can be quite painful and – even for a non-athlete – get in the way of performing routine activities. However, surgery is only a last resort.
The likelihood that ten days of rest will have resolved Lackey’s problem is not great. It becomes more about how (or if) the condition can be managed enough for the pitcher – whose numbers have suffered in comparison to the 1916 season – to be effective.
The Plantar fascia
The word plantar refers to the sole of the foot, and the plantar fascia is a thick fibrous band of connective tissue in this region that extends from the heel to the forefoot. It assists with stabilization of the arch. Fascia occurs throughout the body and overlays the muscles, organs, nerves and blood vessels. It acts as a restraint to keep our tissues and structures in place.
“Itis” means inflammation, in this case of the fascia. As with tendinitis, it is generally felt that a degree of degeneration is also occurring. This is known as tendinosis when referring to tendons. It is much like what happens with conditions such as tennis elbow or patellar tendinitis, which are also due to overload.
The fascia in the foot is particularly strong and is prone to stresses and small tears. Plantar fasciitis, a common cause of foot pain, is an overuse syndrome set off by too much tensioning of the fascia’s attachments to the heel. Though there is an increase incidence of heel spurs in sufferers of fasciitis, spurs, which are generally not within the fascia, do not always cause pain. However they may contribute to a predisposition to the condition.
Weakness of the muscles of the calf or foot/ankle impact function and also predispose to injury by placing more stress on all the related tissues. There is reportedly no definitive evidence that either a high or low arched foot predisposes to plantar fasciitis.
The onset of fasciitis is usually gradual rather than from trauma, and the problem is often stubborn, especially if left untreated. Generally speaking, the faster treatment is initiated after the onset of symptoms, the more accelerated is the recovery.
Women who wear high heels much of the time are prone to fasciitis because the calf muscles and fascia become tight due to the positioning of the foot and ankle. People whose work requires that they spend an inordinate amount of time standing or walking (particularly on hard surfaces) and those who are significantly overweight are also more prone to plantar fasciitis. Prolonged walking, and especially running, which requires a more forceful push-off, are likely to increase inflammation and pain. Jumping will do likewise.
The pain that occurs with this condition is often exaggerated in the morning because the fascia and heel cord (Achilles) are relaxed during sleep. Those first steps when the area is put on stretch can be especially problematic. That is why night splinting to keep the area on mild stretch is so helpful in treatment. The pain, which can be either sharp or dull, often feels like a pulling and is more common after inactivity than with movement. Hence standing for long periods worsening symptoms.
Fasciitis can involve tenderness along the band of the fascia in the arch or be more toward the heel. Putting the fascia on stretch by bending the toes back (dorsiflexion) – especially along with dorsiflexing the ankle (flexing it toward one’s head) – makes the area much more tender to touch. Plantar fasciitis must be distinguished from other conditions such as Heel Pain Syndrome, where the pain is more exclusively localized to the heel.
Treatment for plantar fasciitis focuses on relief of inflammation as well as stretching the fascia itself and reducing its soft tissue restrictions as well as stretching the calf and Achilles. Fascia stretching has proven most effective when it is non weight-bearing and specific to the area. There are many other ways in which to stretch, especially by taking a more dynamic approach and focusing on inhibiting muscles that limit the flexibility of the tight structures. One note of caution if stretching statically and when weight-bearing is to AVOID hanging the heel down off a step. This puts the midfoot structures at risk and also increases incidence of future Achilles rupture. It is best to keep the foot supported on the floor or on a wedge when stretching in in this position.
Treatment of fasciitis should also include assessment of, and attention to, areas of the foot that are related and may impact flexibility of the calf or pliability of the fascia. For instance, if the ankle or the joint at the base of the big toe lacks full mobility (into dorsiflexion) the soft tissues may not be able to stretch adequately. In these instances, restoring mobility to the joints may be necessary to get the desired result.
Though cortisone injections may provide temporary relief (studies show most patients have recurrence), they also come with an increased risk of rupture. The interesting thing is that treatment of chronic plantar fasciitis sometimes includes surgically lengthening the fascia (a procedure that Albert Pujols had), something that rupture may accomplish naturally. The downside is the time spent totally out of commission while healing in either case.