A Bursa is a small fluid filled sac that forms in areas of extra rubbing and friction. They are usually present with a bone deformity as the bone is pressed against other structures like a tendon or against the ground as you walk. The bursa acts as a shock absorber and is a way for your body to protect you from damage. When this bursa or sac like structure becomes swollen and inflammed it is called bursitis. The bursa may be anatomical meaning normally present, or it may be adventitious meaning, only present because of a problem. Many bursa are present and do not cause pain.
Improper foot wear, tight shoes or shoes that do not fit properly can cause extra pressure and friction on the back of the heel. Overtime, this pressure causes irritation of the bursae that protects the Achilles tendon causing one or both to swell and become inflamed. Athletes who overtrain or runners that increase their distance to quickly are at greater risk of experiencing Achilles bursitis. With over use, the Achilles bursae and tendon can become irritated and inflamed leading to thickening of the bursae lining and wearing of the tendon. Fluid builds in the bursa when it becomes irritated causing swelling of the Achilles bursa and pain at the back of the heel.
Posterior heel pain is the chief complaint in individuals with calcaneal bursitis. Patients may report limping caused by the posterior heel pain. Some individuals may also report an obvious swelling (eg, a pump bump, a term that presumably comes from the swelling's association with high-heeled shoes or pumps). The condition may be unilateral or bilateral. Symptoms are often worse when the patient first begins an activity after rest.
A good clinical practise includes evaluation of the tendon, bursa and calcaneum by, careful history, inspection of the region for bony prominence and local swelling as well as palpation of the area of maximal tenderness. Biomechanical abnormalities, joint stiffness and proximal soft tissue tightening can exacerbate an anatomical predisposition to retrocalcaneal bursitis, they warrant correction when present.
Non Surgical Treatment
There are a variety of treatments for bursitis of the heel. Bursitis on the bottom of your heel (which is called infracalcaneal bursitis) is common in heels with thinning fat pads. Gel heel cushions or custom made orthotics (that have a horse-shoe cut and extra foam in the heel) can be lifesavers in reducing the pain. For bursitis of the posterior heel (retrocalcaneal bursitis), try to avoid going barefoot and to reduce the stress on the Achilles tendon by not over flexing your heel, the tighter your Achilles becomes, the more you compress the bursa sacs of the posterior heel. Heel lifts can help this, or wearing shoes with elevated heels (note that this method is not sanctioning high heels, as high heels can provide little comfort or support and usually are tight in the areas where your bursitis is most inflamed). Products such as AirHeel made by Aircast can help massage the bottom and back of the heel, helping to decrease pain.
Surgery is rarely done strictly for treatment of a bursitis. If any underlying cause is the reason, this may be addressed surgically. During surgery for other conditions, a bursa may be seen and removed surgically.