heel pain in young athletes

General Health & Wellness • Feb 09, 2016

Why is she limping? Heel pain in young athletes

Why is my 9-year old limping on the soccer field? As parents, we don’t expect our young children to have an injury unless there was a fall or a dramatic collision on the field. But, as children play sports earlier and earlier, injuries and pain due to overuse are happening more frequently. It isn’t just adults anymore that get pain from doing the same thing over and over (i.e. tennis elbow).

One of the most common things I see in my office is kids with foot/heel pain in the 8-12-year-old age group. This group of kids is getting more active and more competitive in sports. Over the course of a season, they start to have pain in their feet. This pain can make playing sports difficult and can sometimes even make it hard to walk around at school. Typically this pain is due to inflammation of the growth plate in the heel. This is called Sever’s apophysitis.

Kids have growth plates throughout the bones in their bodies. Growth plates allow kids to get taller, grow in foot size, and reach their full adult size. However, these plates tend to be a weak point in the bone and can become painful if they are hit or take too much pounding. As you can imagine, the heels take a lot of pounding when kids are running at soccer practice or basketball. Sports that involve wearing cleats are particularly bad because cleats tend to be narrow in the heel and also have very little padding or cushion.

What can you do if your child starts having heel pain?

  • Heel cups—You can purchase these at drugstores and online. They are little cups that are placed in the back of the shoe to provide extra padding for the heel. The best ones tend to have a gel-like consistency. They should be worn in all shoes, especially cleats.
  • Ice—This will help with pain after sports participation. Placing an ice bag on the heel is a good way to start, or you can try ice massage. To ice massage, you can fill paper dixie cups up ¾ full with water and put them in the freezer. Once frozen, you can tear off the top of the cup, leaving you with a stick of ice. This ice stick can be rubbed all around the heel.
  • Stretch—A tight calf or Achilles tendon can pull on the heel growth plate making it sorer. I will have my patients hang their heels off the edge of a step in their house. It is best to hold the stretch for about 30-60 seconds.

If these three things aren’t helping with your child’s pain, then they may need to take some time off from sports to allow the heels to become less sore. It is also best at that point to see your pediatrician or sports medicine doctor to make sure that nothing else is going on.

You can also try and prevent this heel pain by keeping your child in well-fitted footwear that is changed out every few months. Allowing your child to do a variety of sports and not overdoing it in one sport can also be helpful. A slow warm-up and stretching at cool down is also important in preventing overuse injuries. A little extra time before and after practice can go a long way in keeping your child healthy, active, and pain-free on the field!

To find out more about injuries and injury prevention in young athletes, visit http://stlyac.wustl.edu/.