As children reach their growth spurt in early puberty, the heel is one of the first body parts to grow to full size. Because children's bones are growing so fast, the muscles or tendons can't keep up and often become tight. The tight heel tendons can put a lot of stress on the heel, especially if a child is involved in athletics or other weight-bearing activity. Over time, too much pressure on the heel can injure it and result in Sever's disease, also called calcaneal apophysitis.
There are several theories as to the cause of this condition. These range from a tight Achilles tendon, to micro stress fractures of the calcaneal apopyhsis. The prevailing theory suggests that the condition occurs when the child's growth plate is at its weakest. Combined with increased athletic activity, improper shoe gear and trauma the heel becomes inflamed and painful.
Sharp pain will be present in the affected heel (or both heels), especially while running or walking. Pain can be heightened following activity. The area will be tender to the touch and usually becomes inflamed or reddened. It may also be painful to press on the heel with a finger from the back or to squeeze the sides together; the latter is particularly common. You might notice stiffness in some of the surrounding muscles, making regular movements more difficult to achieve. This and the pain can manifest physically in abnormal practices like tiptoeing or limping. In some cases a lump can be detected on the back of the heel, though it may be so small as to defy detection.
A doctor can usually tell that a child has Sever's disease based on the symptoms reported. To confirm the diagnosis, the doctor will probably examine the heels and ask about the child's activity level and participation in sports. The doctor might also use the squeeze test, squeezing the back part of the heel from both sides at the same time to see if doing so causes pain. The doctor might also ask the child to stand on tiptoes to see if that position causes pain. Although imaging tests such as X-rays generally are not that helpful in diagnosing Sever's disease, some doctors order them to rule out other problems, such as fractures. Sever's disease cannot be seen on an X-ray.
Non Surgical Treatment
In general, management is along the normal lines for sports injuries. Simply telling an individual to give up his or her chosen sport is not satisfactory (this may be a very talented young footballer who hopes to become a professional). Explain to the child and parent that this is an overuse injury, common in the growing child. It has a good prognosis but it is necessary to ease back on training for a while to let it recover. Offer to talk to the coach. If the parent and coach are one and the same, beware that the child is being 'pushed' too hard. During abstinence from normal training, cardiovascular fitness can be maintained by non-weight-bearing exercise such as swimming or cycling.
The surgeon may select one or more of the following options to treat calcaneal apophysitis. Reduce activity. The child needs to reduce or stop any activity that causes pain. Support the heel. Temporary shoe inserts or custom orthotic devices may provide support for the heel. Medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, help reduce the pain and inflammation. Physical therapy. Stretching or physical therapy modalities are sometimes used to promote healing of the inflamed issue. Immobilization. In some severe cases of pediatric heel pain, a cast may be used to promote healing while keeping the foot and ankle totally immobile. Often heel pain in children returns after it has been treated because the heel bone is still growing. Recurrence of heel pain may be a sign of calcaneal apophysitis, or it may indicate a different problem. If your child has a repeat bout of heel pain, be sure to make an appointment with your foot and ankle surgeon.