foot massage

How To Try Massage for Heel Pain: 6 Ways

How To Try Massage for Heel Pain: 6 Ways

Did you know that over 2 million US adults seek treatment for heel pain every year? And it makes sense — as the part of the foot that often strikes the ground first, our heels absorb impact from nearly every activity we do. But they can also get hurt from things we might not even think about, like having an uncommon walking style that puts more pressure on the bone.

When you’re faced with heel pain, the downside is that it sometimes just takes time to get better. But along the way, specific heel massage techniques can help you soothe pain and support the healing process. 

Read on for six easy ways to try massage for heel pain, plus a few extra tips for relief.

Causes of Heel Pain

Experts agree that most causes of heel pain have a “mechanical etiology.” In simple terms, this means your heel aching is more likely due to foot mechanics, repetitive strain, or poorly-fitting footwear as opposed to a systemic disease or infection.

But what kind of mechanical or strain issues usually cause heel pain? The most common ones include:

Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis, (sometimes called jogger’s heel) is a type of heel pain linked to inflammation in the plantar fascia, a large band of tissue that stretches across the bottom of your foot. 

This condition is notorious for affecting runners because as the heel strikes the ground, the plantar fascia can also get hurt. (And an estimated 70 percent of runners are heel strikers!) But it also tends to be common among those who:

  • Practice other kinds of sports
  • Are female
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Are middle-aged (40 to 60 years old)

Heel Spurs

Heel spurs are little bony bumps that form after repetitive shock to the heel bone. Your body might create heel spurs after repairing the same spot over and over again from damage — and that’s why these spurs can sometimes appear along with plantar fasciitis. 

Unfortunately, heel spurs can’t disappear once they’ve formed, but there are ways to minimize your pain when you have one.

Calcaneal Stress Fractures

Calcaneal stress fractures can be another side effect of striking your heel with too much force over time. These are usually intensely painful and can take anywhere from 8–12+ weeks to heal.

If you think you might have a stress fracture, it’s important to stay off your affected foot, visit a doctor, and avoid pressure — even from massage — to ensure the bone can heal properly.

Other Causes of Heel Pain

Aside from the common conditions covered here, there are also many other health issues that can affect the heel. But other times, wear and tear from everyday activities or lifestyle factors might be to blame. These include:

  • Obesity, as it puts more pressure on the feet
  • Overuse or repetitive strain
  • Abnormal or imbalanced walking 
  • Jumping or landing on heels
  • A sudden increase in activity levels compared to what you were doing before

What Are the Benefits of Massage for Heel Pain?

Foot massage involves putting direct pressure on your foot’s soft tissue — whether it be through gliding, kneading, compression, tapping, or vibration. Although it’s a seemingly simple therapy, it can bring a range of surprising benefits for those with heel pain.

For example, setting aside time for a proper foot and heel massage may help with:

Pain Relief

Pain relief is often the main reason people bring foot massage into their home treatment routine — and for good reason.

When you rub or knead the muscles in your feet, it stimulates your pressure receptors. These sensory neurons help your body detect external forces like vibration, pressure, and touch. By putting gentle pressure on them through massage, it may help interrupt the pain signals, in turn leading to in-the-moment pain relief.

Healing & Circulation Support

By stimulating your muscles, creating warmth through touch, and encouraging your body’s relaxation response, heel massage can also help support healthy, oxygen-rich blood to flow into your foot tissue. 

A 2020 study found that self-Thai foot massage — a modality that blends massage with stretching and other movements — temporarily increased skin blood flow in patients with type 2 diabetes. In addition, it also helped improve range of motion in the feet and ankles.

Physically Relaxing Tense Muscles

When your body is inflamed or in pain, your muscles may naturally begin to tense up around the problem area. This is in part a natural protective response to “guard” the area and improve healing, but muscles that become too tense can also be a secondary source of pain. 

When this happens, a light, sweeping massage to the surrounding areas can help the muscles relax. Beyond that, a technique called trigger point therapy can break up knots and other small, irritable bands of muscle that might be playing a role in your heel pain.

How To Try Massage for Heel Pain: 6 Simple Techniques

To ease your achy feet, here are six heel massage techniques to try — ranging from simple hands-on methods to more advanced options for relief:

1. Try a Tennis Ball

A tennis ball is an unexpectedly powerful tool for at-home heel massage. It’s handy, practical, and cheap to pick up if you don’t already have one. It can also help you easily target the various tiny muscles on the bottoms of your feet, including those near the plantar fascia. (If you want to focus more directly on the heel itself, you can also grab a smaller option like a golf ball.)

To use a ball for foot massage, simply:

  • Sit in a chair and place the ball under your foot.
  • Begin to roll out your foot with any pressure level that feels good to you.
  • Roll for 5–10 minutes at a time as needed throughout the day.

2. Use Your Knuckles

When it comes to self-massage for arch and heel pain, our knuckles are some of the best tools we have. Because the knuckles will be doing most of the heavy lifting in this technique, it’s a great way to avoid tiring out your hands when you need a quick foot massage.

To try it, simply align your knuckles with your heel. Then, push inward with moderate pressure and glide the knuckles vertically up the length of the foot. Repeat for 3–5 minutes.

3. Use an Oscillating Massager

Person resting feet on oscillating foot massager.

If you’ve tried a vibrating or oscillating foot massager before, you might know it’s one of the best no-stress ways to get a foot massage at home. (Plus, vibration therapy comes with a lot of additional benefits beyond just pain relief.) 

One way to get started is to try a massager like the MedMassager Foot Massager Plus. As a physician-trusted tool, it’s not only useful for relaxation, but it may also help soothe pain for certain issues affecting the feet.

Using one of these massagers for heel pain involves just a few easy steps:

  • Plug it in, and choose the lightest massage pressure.
  • Allow your heels to soak up the vibrations for one minute.
  • Adjust it to a deeper pressure level as needed.
  • Rest your feet on the device for 10–15 minutes. To include your lower legs in the massage, you can also flip the massager around and place your calves on the surface for an extra few minutes.

4. Thumb Work

If you notice any especially tight bands of muscle in your heel, thumb work can be an excellent way to help break up the tension. To try it:

  • Sit in a position that allows you to easily access your heel.
  • Add a drop of oil or lotion to your heel.
  • Grab hold of your foot to keep it in place. Then, place your thumb on your heel, and use moderate pressure to massage with small, circular motions.. 
  • Repeat for 1–2 minutes.

5. Cross-Fiber Massage (Foot & Calf)

Did you know that tight calves can impact your foot mechanics — and even play a role in heel pain? In cases of plantar fasciitis, many people find that massaging their calves along with their feet can help soothe pain while promoting the healthy function of the lower leg.

One way to include your calves in your foot massage session is to try cross-fiber massage. This involves massaging across the fibers of your muscles, which can help reduce tension and break up adhesions. Here’s how to try it:

  • Cross your leg over your knee to easily access your calf muscle. (If this is difficult for you, feel free to ask a partner for help.)
  • Warm up your calf muscle with broad, gliding motions for 30–60 seconds.
  • Then, wrap both hands around the top of your calf near your knee. Your fingers should be on your shinbone, with your thumbs side-by-side on the calf muscle.
  • Squeeze your hands with medium pressure, and glide both thumbs upward across the calf muscle.
  • Scoot your hands down about one inch, and repeat along the length of the calf.
  • Finish with a cross-fiber arch massage. Use your thumb to massage horizontally across your foot’s arch, from your heel to your toes.

6. Ask a Partner

Some massage techniques for heel pain or plantar fasciitis can be tough to do on your own. Whether you want to try more advanced techniques — or simply find it challenging to massage your own feet — you may benefit from asking a partner for help. 

They can use simple methods like rubbing or kneading, but they can also use more advanced sports massage techniques like: 

  • Using the base of the palm to massage downward vertically along the arch toward the heel. 
  • Finding and releasing trigger points by holding pressure on them for 10–20 seconds.
  • Using effleurage (light gliding motions) and outward foot spreads to loosen the muscles and fascia.

What’s the Best Type of Massage for Heel Pain?

When it comes to massage and heel pain, there hasn’t been much research comparing types directly against each other. However, one 2019 study looked at three different manual therapy interventions for plantar fasciitis — one of the most common culprits of heel pain. The interventions included:

  • Chiropractic manipulation of the foot with cross-friction massage
  • Cross-friction massage with calf stretching
  • A combination of all three 

They found that all three options led to positive results, but that the cross-friction plantar fascia massage paired with calf stretching led to the greatest boost in pain relief.

How Often Should You Use Massage for Heel Pain?

In short, how often you receive (or give yourself) heel massage will depend on your daily routine, and whether or not your heel is currently inflamed or injured. 

For example, if you run every day and are dealing with chronic heel pain, you might opt to self-massage your heel several times per week. On the flip side, if you only have rare, intermittent heel pain, you might want to save your foot massage sessions for flare-ups (although it likely won’t hurt to massage your feet more often than that).

If your heel pain is acute, severe, or making it hard to walk, it’s best to avoid massage and get in touch with your doctor ASAP. Depending on your injury, you might need to wait a few weeks and follow up with other treatments before trying massage.

Are There Any Side Effects of Heel Massage?

Side effects of massage are relatively rare, as long as you’re using proper techniques and don’t have any contraindications (conditions that might make massage unsafe). 

That said, be sure to check with a doctor before trying heel massage if you have a current injury or any medical conditions that you feel unsure about. 

Additionally, here are some tips to help you steer clear of any negative side effects — like worsened inflammation or cramping — while trying massage:

  • When starting, try a few short massage sessions to test how you feel afterward.
  • Try to avoid pressure on any part of the heel that’s excessively tender or painful to the touch.
  • Start with light pressure and ease your way into deeper work.

Are There Any Complementary Treatments That Pair Well With Massage?

Yes! Many complementary treatments and home remedies can help you manage your heel pain, whether on their own or coupled with regular massage. These include:

Physical Therapy

If you have a severe foot injury or are recovering from a calcaneal stress fracture, your doctor may recommend physical therapy during your recovery.

A physical therapist can prescribe you personalized stretches and exercises to help your heel recover normally. Plus, they’ll ensure you don’t develop any abnormal walking habits or foot mechanics while healing.

Home Stretching & Strengthening

Stretching and strengthening exercises go hand-in-hand with physical therapy — but even if you only have minor heel pain, a home exercise routine can make a world of difference in your foot and heel health.

Stretching — including calf stretches and arch stretches — can help you minimize muscle tension that might be limiting your mobility or adding to the pain. Resistance (or strength) training will reinforce the muscles, tendons, and ligaments around your heel, helping curb your chances of foot pain later on.

Calf Stretch With Band

If you have an exercise band, you can easily stretch and loosen up your calf muscles at home. This stretch is best done in the AM to lengthen and relax your calves before working out, walking, or generally starting your day. To try it:

  • Sit with your legs extended.
  • Bend your left leg inward until your left foot touches your right thigh.
  • Wrap your exercise band around the ball of your right foot. 
  • Gently pull it toward you until you feel a stretch in the calf.
  • Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat 2–3 times for each leg.

Standing Calf Raises

Calf raises are one of the easiest lower leg exercises to help support your foot and heel mechanics. Simply:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart. 
  • Engage your calves, and slowly rise onto your tip-toes.
  • Repeat for 2–3 sets of 10–15 reps.
  • Optionally, add a set of dumbbells to make the exercise even more challenging.

The Bottom Line

Massaging your heels is a great way to melt away pain, encourage healthy healing, and keep your feet in top shape — no matter your lifestyle. It’s easy to massage your feet with your hands or thumbs, but oscillating foot massagers can make a great addition to your home massage routine, both for their ease of use and for the deeper benefits of vibration therapy.

Start soothing your heel pain with a powerful, physician-trusted option like the MedMassager Foot Massager Plus today, or learn more about how it works.

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