foot pain

Plantar Fasciitis From Leg Length Discrepancy

167794107_e8a7b59b0d_zI admit it, I've spent a long time being overconfident about my ability to easily and quickly resolve plantar fasciitis (a painful condition of the foot caused by the plantarfascia pulling away from the heel bone). Because I work in a fascial field as a Rolfer® I've had a lot of people contact me for help with plantar fasciitis over the years and most of the time I have been able to easily help them. I've written about that approach here, and, in fact, when plantar fasciitis results from a short or gluey posterior chain of tissue (i.e. the calves, hamstrings, gluteals, and low back and spinal muscles), it does in fact respond very readily to to this approach. Tight fascia = loosen that fascia. Easy, right?

Fortunately there seems to be some divine order that says when a person (in this case, me) gets too assured of something (in this case via a formulaic way of thinking about the body), some wonderful opportunity to see the body freshly as the complex unified organism that it is presents itself.

The first time I had a plantar fasciitis client fail to respond was, as these things go, with a dear friend. And while I would love to pretend that I'm an enlightened being, when a friend in pain comes to me I now have my normal desire to help out layered with an egoic desire to be the one who "fixes" them. Ha ha ha! Silly mortal! You cannot fix people! Yes, this whole "be the one who fixes people" drive is usually a set up for a fall.

This was also the first time I had encountered plantar fasciitis as a result of a leg length discrepancy. Or at least it was the first time I became aware of that courtesy of the conversations that she and I, and the wonderful physical therapist who I had referred her to, had as things resolved. Since that time I have met with a handful of other people who were dealing with the same thing and so I wanted to write about it here to save some people the months and years of trying to get better to no avail.

Here's the important detail: if someone is struggling with plantar fasciitis chronically and they are not responding to normal treatment (i.e. smart manual therapy and movement that addresses the fascial and functional movement problems), there is a good chance that they are dealing with a leg length problem, and until that gets resolved the pain is going exactly no where. 

So first let's talk leg length discrepancies. They vary quite a lot from incredibly subtle to quite obvious. I write this because most people assume that if they have one longer leg that it would be glaringly obvious and they would be aware of it. However if it is the subtle variety (which also happens to be the most common variety) it usually goes unnoticed. Even teeny discrepancies can cause people a lot of grief.

Leg length discrepancies come in two flavors- either a bone length (structural) difference or an alignment and soft tissue (functional) difference. Because everything in our bodies works in sync with one another, sometimes differentiating between the two types can feel like splitting hairs. In fact, the bone length version is traditionally called a "structural" difference, and the soft tissue version is traditionally called the "functional" difference, but I can't really bring myself to continue differentiating them that way here since, well, whether it is bone or soft tissue ultimately you are dealing with a structural and a functional issue no matter what. Everything has its structural and functional components and I don't know why "structural" should refer to just the hardest bits, i.e. the bones. Then again I'm biased. I write a blog with the word fascia in the title. I digress...

Semanitcs aside, here is why it is important to know if you are dealing with primarily a bone length difference or primarily an alignment/soft tissue issue* because depending on which flavor you have, your treatment will be quite different.

A bone length difference happens when either your femur or your tibia is literally shorter on one side than another. This is the more rare scenario and will happen most commonly if you've had a break in one of those bones (particularly if that break happened when you were still growing), or if you've had a joint replacement since that requires actually removing and replacing part of both of those bones in the case of a knee replacement, and just the femur in the case of a hip replacement.

This is important to know because you cannot make your bones longer now. So while I'm not typically an orthotics kind of girl, if you have one leg that is longer than another due to a bone length discrepancy you are going to have to work with someone who can make a very thoughtful lift for you to wear. This will even out your leg length problem and start you on the road to healing.

I say "very thoughtful" because you can't just go to the pharmacy and pick up something Dr. Scholl's produced for the masses. It needs to remedy the situation with precision and not be the cause of new trouble. Think of when you get dental work; If your dentist filled a cavity and left one tooth significantly longer than the other teeth- youch! It will hurt a lot when you try to bite down. And if one tooth is left shorter than the other teeth, your jaw strains to make your bite meet causing a different kind of discomfort that is more joint-centric (TMJ) and less tooth-centric. Your feet become how you "bite down" on the ground as you walk and stand, and a mismatched pair of legs will have repercussions into your ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, spine, and head. Not to mention that persnickety plantar fasciitis.

Even if it is determined that you have a bone length difference, you have still spent a lot of years (usually) walking around on an uneven foundation, so you'll still need some thoughtful bodywork, but sadly thoughtful bodywork in the absence of a lift is not going to stick with you and the pain will return. So in the case of a bone length difference: lift first, bodywork next. And you may need to tweak the lift as your soft tissue compensations resolve.

An alignment issue happens when you have movement patterns, accidents, injuries, or surgeries that cause your soft tissue to become misaligned. This can take many forms and so is less easy to give a bullet point list. It is also more common however, so here are a few examples to give you an idea of what I mean (note the bullet points even though I said I couldn't do that. Maddening, right?):

  • You spent years competing in high jump and so always jumped off one leg, causing one psoas and quadratus lumborum to hike up. 
  • You spent years carrying everything (kids, groceries, big purse, etc) on one side, causing one psoas and quadratus lumborum to hike up.
  • You had an abdominal surgery which caused some scar tissue internally causing one psoas and quadratus lumborum to hike up.
  • You have scoliosis which causes one psoas and quadratus lumborum to hike up.

Ok now I'm just being annoying. I have a rally cry here and in my practice which is, "It's never just one thing!" and that is true. And it is also never just two things like I oh so tidily made it in the bullet points above. It is always the synergy of how everything comes together and what compensatory patterns  emerge to try and help you out. However, if you are dealing with a leg length discrepancy you can be sure that the psoas and quadratus lumborum are a big part of that dance. When they shorten on one side they have the effect not only of creating pelvic rotations and imbalances, but also of making the leg seem to tuck itself up into the pelvis more.

So if you have plantar fasciitis that has not resolved with manual therapy and you also have sacroiliac pain, low back pain, tight IT bands, piriformis syndrome, lateral knee pain, or gait problems (i.e. limping, or a strongly externally rotated leg), you may very well be dealing with an underlying leg length discrepancy which needs to be addressed in order for the pain to resolve. However, if the main "buddies" that come with your plantar fasciitis are tight hamstrings, calves, and gluteals, and you just plain have a tendency to overexert the hell out of yourself (hellooooo ultra marathoners!) you will likely do quite well with and get some long term resolution with manual and movement therapy alone.

And if you think you might fit this description and are wondering which side you are longer on- the pain usually starts on the longer leg.

* Yes, I got all uppity and italicized with the "primarily" because if you have a bone length difference you can be sure that you will also have an alignment issue. Also "Soft Tissue Issue" is a great name for a band and someone should steal that. 

Research references:

photo by Iacovos Constantino


DIY Friday: Plantar Fasciitis

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*Do it yourself! Every Friday we do a roundup of great posts, videos, or other resources around a theme that help people to turn their bodies from cranky to happy.*

A recent chat with the Facebook tribe started to go down the plantar fasciitis rabbit hole, so here I am dedicating a DIY Friday to it! I also have an interview coming up next week with Jae Gruenke, founder of Balanced Runner, and since so many runners struggle with plantar fasciitis it seemed like a theme was emerging.

First, what the heck is plantar fasciitis? The short version is that the plantar fascia (fascial sheet on the bottom of your foot) begins to pull away from it's attachement on the calcaneus (heel bone) and you wind up with some pretty gnarly burning heel and foot pain. In the book Born to Run* author Christopher MacDougall describes it as the runner's version of a vampire bite, because, as runner legend has it, once you're "bitten" with plantar fasciitis many feel you are never the same again. Well breathe deep because I'm here to tell you that plantar fasciitis is one of those things that I actually have in the "easy" category in my brain simply because I see it resolve so often and so readily. Which isn't to say it doesn't take some doing, but here's how:

  • Erik Dalton is a brilliant manual therapist and teacher, and this video is the clearest description I have found of what is actually going on in plantar fasciitis. The article that precedes the video also does a fanstasic job of explaining how it's not just your foot. It's never just one thing. Never, ever. But it's always helpful to be educated on the more global view of any condition, which is what this article handily does! If you are a manual therapist, there is also great content here on how you can treat it in your clients. If you are not a manual therapist, please don't go grabbing your friend's leg and shoving and shaking stuff around! It actually takes a good bit of learning in order to effectively contact fascia and to know how to appropriately work joints like he does in the video, so just mashing on your buddies is likely to cause more harm than good. The article is here, and the video is at the end of it.


  • Speaking of taking a global view, as Dalton mentions in his article, "Plantar fasciitis often results from lack of individuality of motion in the calf muscles due to adhesions." That is very true, and taking it a bit further, it is an issue with the whole posterior chain of fascia. Otherwise known as the "superficial back line" as defined by Tom Myers Anatomy Trains work. Here is a great image of that line. So, if you want to resolve your plantar fasciitis, give due attention to everything here along the chain as well.


  • Oh look! Here's recently interviewed Sue Hitzmann of the MELT Method preaching it like she teaches it, and is also talking about plantar fasciitis as a global issue:

  • Oh wait! What do we have here!? It's Katy Bowman of Restorative Exercise talking about plantar fasciitis as a global issue (in particular those persnickity hamstrings with some data that talks about why). Hmmm, maybe it's not just about the foot...

Ok, ok, taking all this good input about how it's not just your foot and moving forward with a healing plan for yourself here's what I actually like, a lot, for treating plantar fasciitis:

Smart fascial manual therapy from either a practitioner, or you can MELT at home.

Softness! Learning how to soften your foot is a game of coaxing it to let go, not of yanking it around. I like hamstring stretches that have a fully dorsiflexed ankle (bring toes toward shin) so that you're not missing tight bits in your calves. This would look like lying on your back with a strap around the ball of your foot, and flexing at your hip to bring the foot closer to the ceiling. Though stop when you hit your own end range with the flexed ankle (rather than pointing the toe to get farther). You can also stretch standing on a slant board like this one, again, I like a soft surface to a slant board, and it is also very helpful to think about really letting all the musculature of your foot soften into is as you stretch. Think of your plantar fascia as warm, gooey silly putty that is just oozing onto the slant board. Do not hyperextend at the knee or shove your pelvis forward ofyour ankles while standing on a slant board.

Alexander Technique. Speaking of letting the musculature go, I find so many people micro grip in their feet as a result of stress, or strain and pain patterns elsewhere in the body. I love Alexander Technique as a way to learn about your own micro grips and how to find a way to let them go. I recommend working with a teacher, rather than doing this alone at home, as you will need trained eyes to point out things you have become totally blind to in your own body. Most people are amazed at how much they are subconsciously clawing at the floor with their toes. No really.

* Footnote: If you haven't read Born to Run I highly recommend it. And if you are a runner, I practicaly require it (if I could do such a thing). It has a lot of  fascinating information, particulary when it comes to the evolution of highly engineered running sneakers paralleling the evolution of highly unpleasant runner injuries, and is also a beautifully written and engaging story.

DIY Friday: Happy Toes Make for a Happy Everything Else

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*Do it yourself! Every Friday we do a roundup of great posts, videos, or other resources around a theme that help people to turn their bodies from cranky to happy.*

3947194052_38776fe93c_bIn the last couple of weeks my love affair with toes has become apparent. I got into it in The Most Important Joints article, as well as the 5 Keys to Age-Proofing (and Reverse Aging) Your Body But really, it's hard to think of another place in the body that if you work on it everything else literally improves dramatically. Having mobile, capable toes is your key to gorgeous spinal mobility and springy, youthful knees and hips. Those little guys even affect your head carriage and how much poise you naturally possess.

And so if that sounds intriguing to you, here are a couple of ways to make your toes happier. These are great pre-workout (or hiking) moves to get your Jedi nature all ready to go...

(yep, this week it's just me, we'll get back to our round up model again though):

First up, a quick and easy way to get all that fascia, and those tendons and ligaments in the feet nice and juicy:

Next up, make your feet super geniuses with toe isolations. So that you can move like a ninja. Or Jedi. Or whatever:


photo by nhanusek

Safe transition to minimal footwear

[Side note from Brooke: this is a great addendum to the last DIY Friday on eradicating foot pain, which is a review of Katy Bowman's fab book. And for those of you who are minimal footwear curious (no they don't all have to show your toes in all their glory...), some great brands to check out are: Vibrams 5 Fingers, Vivo Barefoot, Merrell Connect, New Balance Minimus, and AirwalksEnter Jillian: 3731945345_fcc530cc96_bSo, spring is here and soon it’s gonna be summer. I’ll be out walking every day, and I’m sure you will too. Right? Promise me you’ll go out walking every day because it’s one of the best things you can do for your health! Good. There’s a big trend right now toward minimal footwear, like the famed 5 Fingers.

It is a trend that I am more than happy to follow. For some people it can be hard to catch up and jump on the bandwagon though, because their feet are already so screwed up. It can be discouraging to start wearing minimal shoes and then discover that they are way harder on the feet and increase your foot pain. You thought these shoes were supposed to be good for you! Trust me, they are good for you, but if your foot is really weak and tight (which most feet are) it can be downright damaging to the foot to wear minimal shoes . But don’t worry! As long as you don’t have gangrene  you can whip your feet back into shape and you can transition to minimal shoes. I’m going to give you some tips on how to do this, so you can experience all the rad-tastic benefits without busting up your parts.

First of all, why is minimal foot wear so awesome? Because it allows the foot to move. Movement is the key to health in any part of the body. Movement increases circulation, it stretches tight muscle, it strengthens weak muscle, provides fresh oxygen and increases lymph flow to the area in motion, which in turn decreases inflammation and pain in the area, it keeps the bones strong, blahblah you get the idea. This is really important for the feet, since they are the base you stand on. If you have hurting feets, it’s gonna be really hard for you to get in any of the movement the rest of your body requires for health. Standard foot wear, especially shoes with an elevated heel (which is anything that isn’t 100% flat, I’m not just talking about high heels) does not let your foot move, and the heel maintains an incorrect joint angle in the ankle and knee while you move around. Ouch. It’s like stuffing your foot in a cast, day after day, week after week…30 – 80 years go by and you have bunions and plantar fasciitis and you can’t even walk to the car, let alone go hiking on a woodsy trail. Now, because your atrophied foot muscles can’t bear the weight of your body anymore and everything hurts all the damn time, you get stuck in really supportive shoes and orthotic arch supports. Here’s the killer though, the more supportive the shoe, the more your muscles will atrophy  and the worse the problem gets! All the support you’re putting around your foot is basically telling your muscles to shag off and go on vacation. The less supportive the shoe, the more your own foot has to move and work to support you, and the healthier it becomes.

The first step is admitting you have a problem. Hehe. No, the first step is getting into some flat footwear. Start going barefoot around your house, and start transitioning to wearing flats all the time. If you’re having a lot of pain, try wearing low heels for a while, and then wear flats more often.


These Sketcher’s Go Walk shoes are a nice transition shoe for someone who is used to wearing high heels all the time. They are NOT flat, but they are flexible. I wouldn’t wear them forever, but they’re a really nice step between high heel and flat shoe!


This stretch on a half roller or a rolled up towel will help you get into flats more quickly.

Even going from flat shoes to minimal shoes is tricky. I have wonderfully healthy mobile feet, but after just 1 hour in my new shoes, my feet were really feeling it. I discovered a muscle on the bottom of my foot that controls my pinky toe. Evidently, ALL your toesies are important for walking. A little bit of foot training goes a long way when trying to get used to shoes with less support.

Finally, go easy on yourself. Don’t decide one day that you’re just going to wear minimal shoes all the time after years of wearing high heel shoes. You have to prepare your foot, and then get in the water slowly. Wear your new minimal shoes for short walks at first, and when you’re not wearing minimal shoes make sure to keep wearing flats so you don’t undo all your hard work.

A final tip: really minimal shoes work best on natural surfaces. They’re great for going hiking in the woods, or walks on gravel trails, or over fields, etc. Not so great for long walks on pavement. Your muscle and bone was designed to thrive in a natural environment. Walking or running around on pavement (in minimal shoes) can be harmful to your feet, and even your bones. It’s not the shoe’s fault. Minimal shoes are still awesome and great for you, but if you stuff your atrophied  tight, weak feet into a pair and then go for a long walk on pavement, you’re asking for trouble! Prepare your feet, don’t undo the work by wearing elevated heels, take the transition slowly, and don’t spend long times on pavement or concrete in minimal shoes.

Vibrams photo by The Witchery 

Re-posted from the original post Safe Transition to Minimal Footwear, With a Video! with permission from Jillian Nicol


About the Author

red dressI’m Jillian.  I’ve been a fit person for as long as I can remember, walking and exercising have always been some of my favorite pastimes.  So it made sense that when I became pregnant, I remained fairly active through my entire pregnancy,though I had pain in my tailbone which was crippling at times and lots of foot and leg pain.  After the delivery of my daughter, it was 10 days before I could even stand again, let alone carry on with my previous active lifestyle. It became clear to me that although I was an extremely fit person, my body wasn’t really working the way it was supposed to.  My back hurt all the time, I had pelvic pain, and what seemed like the beginning of arthritis in one knee and one hand.  I no longer felt comfortable in my own skin, and thought that age and childbirth were to blame.

Then I found the Restorative Exercise™ program, and felt like I had unearthed some kind of treasure.  Here was a way for me to get my own health back and an opportunity to spend my time helping other people increase their well being, too.

Now, as a certified Restorative Exercise™ specialist and certified Healthy Foot practitioner, I am dedicated to helping others learn about the impact of movement patterns on their health.  It’s my mission in life to help people understand that what we consider normal aging of the body is not inevitable, that pain doesn’t have to be a part of everyday life, and that many diseases can be reversed without drugs or invasive surgeries.  My goal is to bring this information and the Restorative Exercise™ movement program to people of every level of mobility and health.


DIY Friday: Bye Bye Foot Pain!

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*Do it yourself! Every Friday we do a roundup of great posts, videos, or other resources around a theme that help people to turn their bodies from cranky to happy.*

bowman footThis DIY Friday is a review of Katy Bowman's book, Every Woman's Guide to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Healthy Feet. So first off, dudes, you know I love you so stop your grumbling. This still thoroughly applies to you. I believe Bowman wrote her book to the ladies mainly because we tend to make much, much poorer footwear choices for ourselves. Men are not expected to wear 3 inch heels to the office, for example. Well, depending on the office? That would be an interesting office. Sorry, I got off track, my point is, if you are a man who is struggling with foot pain, don't cheat yourself out of getting this amazing resource just because the word "woman" is front and center. Just hide it on your Kindle or something, ok? You'll have to read a few bits on the plague of high heels, but the rest is super juicy and relevant for men as well as women. And the exercises given in the book are distinctly gender neutral and fan-freaking-tastic.

But on to the book review: I frequently find in the movement and alignment world that many resources skew either too woo woo, are overly filled with academic jargon, or are just plain misinformed rookies trying to make a buck in the chronic pain field. Well Katy Bowman is not going to tell you that you can resolve your foot pain by imagining all of your chakras simultaneously blooming into daisies, nor is she going to make you read endless lists of ligaments of the feet (try saying anterior inferior tibial fibular ligament 3 times fast!), and as a scientist with a Masters in biomechanics, she's certainly no rookie. Her book hits that perfect sweet spot of being both profoundly useful, and accessible to a wide population. It also happens to answer many of the most common questions that I hear in my Rolfing® practice related to the feet. Scratch that, make that related to everything.

Yes, this book will help you with foot-specific issues like bunions, hammer toes, plantar fasciitis, corns, neuromas, etc, but it is also an enormously useful resource to help people with knee, hip, and back pain, as well as addressing  posture and I would argue a seriously important read for anyone concerned with maintaining health while aging. As Bowman writes in her book, "The function of the foot goes way beyond the scrunching of the toes and the stabilizing of the ankle. The foot is the platform for your entire body. The muscles have to be strong enough to keep your entire body moving as smoothly as possible. If I haven't clearly stated it before, the current state of your feet is a future projection of how well you will be able to move as you get older. "

Don't believe the divine Ms. Bowman and I on this one? Then try this little experiment at home: pretend your feet have suddenly turned into rigid bricks and take a walk on your pretend ultra-rigid feet. Did you just instantaneously turn into Frankenstein in your living room? Yep, that's because the mobility of your feet determines to a huge degree the mobility of all of you. You cannot move with the supple spine of a Brazilian samba dancer with Frankenstein's feet downstream from that spine. To put it into more anatomical/ less monster movie terms; joints are where we move musculoskeletally in our bodies. Imagine yourself navigating a day without movement at your knees and elbows and you get a sense for the joints=movement equation. In our feet we have thirty-three joints. In my elbow I have 3, and in my knee I have 2, but my feet have thirty-three. Those dogs were built for mobility, and that is in large part for the benefit of how that mobility translates up to the rest of you.

But enough of my yammering. If you're still reading this review it's because you want happier, healthier feet, or you want to play with how improving your foot health might impact the rest of you. Well good news! Nearly half of Katy Bowman's book is dedicated to "The Foot Gym" with exercises to help you get your feet into tip top shape. They are all very easy to do at home and can be dripped into your life in a totally sane way. You don't need to suddenly dedicate an hour a day to working on your feet to see benefit, and it doesn't require investing in ridiculous new equipment. You can find the book and give the exercises a shot here.  Needless to say, I highly recommend it.