PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Instead of burning fat, why not transplant it into your foot? That’s the idea behind a recent pilot study looking at an innovative way of treating heel pain.
“We developed this procedure to harness the regenerative properties of fat,” says study author Jeffrey Gusenoff, MD, professor of plastic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, in a media release. “In this proof-of-concept study, we showed that fat injections into the foot reduced heel pain, helped patients get back to doing sports and activities and boosted quality of life.”
Plantar fasciitis is a painful condition that is the most common cause of heel pain. About two million people living in the United States experience inflammation in the plantar fascia, the connective tissue that starts from the heel to the toes and supports the foot arch.
“When you get up from a sitting position or from sleeping, it’s a sharp, searing pain that some people describe as being like a nail going right through their heel,” describes Beth Gusenof, DPM, clinical assistant professor of plastic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
While acute plantar fasciitis is treatable with stretching, shoe orthotics, or cortisone injections, 10 percent of patients go on to develop a chronic form of the condition where the foot’s collagen degenerates, and the plantar fascia gets thicker. Patients with the chronic form find a surgical cut of the plantar fasciitis can alleviate symptoms. However, podiatrists have raised concerns over cutting the plantar fascia. Some patients develop scar tissue which can destabilize the foot — leading to people walking with a “floppy foot.”
So, is belly fat the key to more cushion in the foot?
The researchers previously showed that fat injections were beneficial for reducing foot pain caused by the loss of fat pads that cushion the ball of the foot and heel. Study authors say fat stem cells have regenerative properties and, building on this idea, the team developed a technique to collect fat from a patient’s belly or body area.
Fourteen patients with chronic plantar fasciitis participated in the study, with researchers separating them into two groups. The first group received the procedure, using a blunt needle to perforate the plantar fascia and making a small injury to start the body’s healing process. Researchers then pulled the needle back to inject fat collected during the start of the study. The team tracked their progress for a year.
A second group received the procedure after a six-month observation period, and scientists followed each patient for an additional six months. People in Group 1 reported a higher quality of life, an increase in their ability to play sports, decreased plantar fascia thickness, and less pain after one year.
Group 2 had lower plantar fascia thickness and increased sports activity six months after the procedure. They also reported a slight improvement in pain levels. The researchers plan to conduct a larger clinical trial to validate these findings.
The study is published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.