The muscle group at the back of the lower leg is commonly called the calf. The calf comprises of 2 major muscles (known as the gastrocnemius and soleus) both of which insert into the heel bone via the Achilles tendon. In people who have not yet reached skeletal maturity, a growth plate exists where the Achilles tendon inserts into the heel bone. This growth plate is primarily comprised of cartilage. Every time the calf contracts, it pulls on the Achilles tendon which in turn pulls on the heel’s growth plate. When this tension is too forceful or repetitive, irritation to the growth plate may occur resulting in pain and sometimes an increased bony prominence at the back of the heel. This condition is called Severs disease. Severs disease is typically seen in children or adolescents during periods of rapid growth. This is because muscles and tendons become tighter as bones become longer. As a result, more tension is placed on the heel’s growth plate.
Sever’s disease also can result from standing too long, which puts constant pressure on the heel. Poor-fitting shoes can contribute to the condition by not providing enough support or padding for the feet or by rubbing against the back of the heel. Although Sever’s disease can occur in any child, these conditions increase the chances of it happening, pronated foot (a foot that rolls in at the ankle when walking), which causes tightness and twisting of the Achilles tendon, thus increasing its pull on the heel’s growth plate, flat or high arch, which affects the angle of the heel within the foot, causing tightness and shortening of the Achilles tendon, short leg syndrome (one leg is shorter than the other), which causes the foot on the short leg to bend downward to reach the ground, pulling on the Achilles tendon, overweight or obesity, which puts weight-related pressure on the growth plate.
Patients with Severs disease typically experience pain that develops gradually in the back of the heel or Achilles region. In less severe cases, patients may only experience an ache or stiffness in the heel that increases with rest (especially at night or first thing in the morning). This typically occurs following activities which require strong or repetitive contraction of the calf muscles, such as running (especially uphill) or during sports involving running, jumping or hopping. The pain associated with this condition may also warm up with activity in the initial stages of the condition. As the condition progresses, patients may experience symptoms that increase during activity and affect performance. Pain may also increase when performing a calf stretch or heel raise (i.e. rising up onto tip toes). In severe cases, patients may walk with a limp, have difficulty putting their heel down, or be unable to weight bear on the affected leg. Pain may also increase on firmly touching the affected region and occasionally a bony lump may be palpable or visible at the back of the heel. This condition typically presents gradually overtime and can affect either one or both lower limbs.
Low-grade inflammation of the calcaneal apophysis cannot be seen on x-ray. Therefore, although x-rays are often done to rule out bony injuries in children with Sever’s disease these x-rays are usually normal. Advanced Sever’s disease can be seen on x-ray but usually the problem is treated before it reaches this point. Other diagnostic tests, such as bone scans or MRI’s, are not usually required in typical cases of Sever’s disease. These, or other tests, may be required to rule out other conditions, such as stress fractures of the calcaneus or other bony abnormalities that can mimic Severs disease.
Non Surgical Treatment
Ice the heel(s) well after exercise (until the area is cold and numb!) Stretch hamstring and calf muscles 2-3 times daily (exercises below) REST when pain becomes persistent or moderate (even if it means skipping games or practices.) Anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen. If symptoms persist, your child may need to see a physical therapist for additional exercises, and/or an orthopedist for othotics or temporary casting/crutches if pain is severe. Sever?s disease is self-recovering, meaning that it will go away on its own when the heels are rested or when the bone is through growing. The condition is not expected to create any long-term disability, and expected to subside in 2-8 weeks. However, pain can recur, for example at the start of a new sports season, several times if it is not taken care of.