What Are Heel Cups? + Why They’re Effective For Plantar Fasciitis

There are a multitude of inserts that can be used in your shoes to potentially help relieve foot pain and increase the support for your feet to prevent foot pain in the first place.

For example, there are custom orthotics, foot insoles you can buy at a pharmacy, arch supports, and heel cups.

But, what are heel cups for shoes good for? Do heel cushions for shoes help with heel pain? Will a heel cup fix plantar fasciitis?

In this guide, we will discuss what heel cups for shoes and heel cushions for shoes are, the benefits of heel cups for foot pain, and whether heel cups help plantar fasciitis and other common foot conditions.

We will look at: 

  • What Are Heel Cups for Shoes?
  • How Do Heel Cups Work?
  • Do Heel Cups Help Plantar Fasciitis?
  • What Are Heel Cups Used For?

Let’s get started!

A person holding up their running shoes to show the heel cups.

What Are Heel Cups for Shoes?

Heel cups are a type of shoe insert that extends from the back of the shoe at your heel to about where the arch begins, so the heel cup insert cradles the heel.

This is in contrast to standard foot orthotics or even the 3/4-length orthotic inserts that go the full length of your shoe.

Heel cups are designed to provide additional support to your heels and may have cushioning or serve as more of a heel pad or heel cushion to help attenuate impact stress and provide comfort for your heels in your footwear.

Some people buy heel cups for their shoes as a preventative measure for heel pain, generalized foot pain, or plantar fasciitis, particularly if they stand on their feet all day, as may be the case when teaching, working in the medical industry, retail or service industry, chefs or restaurant workers, or using a standing desk at work.

Additionally, a podiatrist may recommend heel cups for plantar fasciitis or other conditions characterized by heel pain or foot pain as a corrective measure as part of a treatment plan.

Plantar fasciitis heel cups or generalized heel cushions for shoes are available in many pharmacies, online retailers like Amazon, and some shoe stores. 

Alternatively, you can usually buy some of the best plantar fasciitis heel cups from a foot care office or your podiatry office where you receive care.

A doctor checking out a patient's heel.

How Do Heel Cups Work?

Heel cups may be very firm and rigid, or there may be more flexibility and padding overlying the structural part of the cup.

The more padding, the more the insert will double as a heel support and heel cushion for shoes.

The best heel cushions for comfort have gel padding instead of foam because gel heel cushions act as a plasma-like material with more fluid properties to help disperse forces on the heel and absorb shock.

Ultimately, while foam heel cushions for shoes do help provide some padding for your heels, a gel heel cup is better able to distribute shock along the entire surface area of the heel cup more effectively, which reduces pinpoint pressure at any given area on the heel.

Plantar fasciitis is often accompanied by a heel spur, which is an abnormal bony growth that can develop on the bottom of your heel where the plantar fascia attaches to the calcaneus (heel bone).

This bone spur can cause intense pinpoint pressure as it juts downward through the plantar fascia and soft tissues of your foot.

Therefore, when you are standing, walking, running, or otherwise weight-bearing on your foot, the heel spur will dig into the bottom of your foot and take a lot of pressure since it is the first bony tissue that will contact the ground, given its protrusion below the heel bone.

For this reason, plantar fasciitis heel cups that have a nice gel cushioning over the structural portion can help relieve some of the pressure because the gel material can disperse the shock and stress on the heel spur when you are weight-bearing on the heel.

Someone holding their heel in pain.

Do Heel Cups Help Plantar Fasciitis? 

Plastic heel cups for shoes were originally designed for athletes who were suffering from heel bruises as a way to help alleviate discomfort on the heel pad by cradling the heel and spreading out pressure while also confining the heel in the rigid plastic cup, which helps prevent the collapse of the anatomical heel pad.

Since the inception of the product, plastic heel cups have been used in clinical practice since at least 1966, and they are primarily used to treat plantar fasciitis or heel pain in general.

Studies have found that plastic heel cups can reduce plantar pressure (pressure on the bottom of the foot) and can decrease and alter the pattern of ground reaction impact forces when you walk and run.

Furthermore, another study found that wearing heel cups in shoes was able to reduce stiffness and increase the thickness of both layers of the body’s heel pad during standing.

Essentially the benefit was that wearing it reduced the internal stress of the heel pad by increasing the thickness of this tissue by confining the heel pad tissue in the rigid plastic heel cup.

A person running.

This study was actually conducted with subjects who had plantar fasciitis, further demonstrating the potential heel cup plantar fasciitis treatment effectiveness.

Together, these findings explain how heel cups actually work to decrease pain associated with plantar fasciitis—reducing plantar pressure, reducing and changing ground impact forces, providing stability and support to the heel, absorbing and distributing impact shock on the heel, and decreasing shear forces on the heel pad.

What Are Heel Cups Used For?

Although the main indication for using shoe heel cups is plantar fasciitis, they can be beneficial both prophylactically as well as for other conditions.

For example, if you stand on your feet all day, using heel cups in your shoes can help improve your posture by providing additional support to your heel so that your foot is held in the correct position more easily, even as the smaller intrinsic muscles of your feet, ligaments, and tendons fatigue and stretch under pressure.

This heel cup benefit can be particularly helpful for people with flat feet, low arches, or who carry excess body weight.

A person holding a pair of colorful running shoes.

In any of these scenarios, the foot has a tendency to collapse under your body weight, which will then shift the foot out of optimal alignment.

The entire lower body works in a connected kinetic chain such that when your foot is not supported properly or in the wrong position, it changes the alignment and positioning of your ankles, which then affects the alignment of your knees, which then travels up and can affect the alignment of your hips and pelvis overall. 

This, in turn, can affect your posture when standing as well as your dynamic posture when walking and running.

Furthermore, if you are standing or walking on your feet all day, additional heel support provided by a heel cup shoe insert can alleviate some of the workload and demand on the muscles and ligamentous structures in your feet so that your foot is better able to maintain the correct position, even if you don’t have noticeably flat feet or low arches.

For this reason, nurses, chefs, retail workers, factory workers, and other jobs that require long hours of standing or walking may benefit from wearing heel cups for shoes even before heel pain or foot pain develops.

A person with heel pain.

This is not to say that using heel cups will necessarily prevent plantar fasciitis, as it is often a multifaceted issue, but it is one potential benefit of heel cups for some individuals.

In general, it is best to work with a podiatrist if you are experiencing plantar fasciitis symptoms or if you want specific recommendations for plantar fasciitis heel cups that will be best for your body and your needs.

The podiatrist will be able to help you decide whether you need full orthotics vs heel cups for plantar fasciitis or will help you choose the right heel cushions for plantar fasciitis if something less robust will be better suited for your needs.

To learn more about the causes and treatments for plantar fasciitis, check out our guide to this painful foot condition here.

A person rolling a ball under their foot.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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