Becoming flatfooted can be a real health issue for people. The advice from healthcare experts is to pay attention to foot pain, and when it happens, to seek help right away. In the last 20 years, adult-acquired flatfoot has become a more commonly recognized health issue. The cause is a dysfunction of the ankle tendon that attaches to the bones on the inside of your foot. The function of this posterior tibial tendon (PTT) is to maintain the foot arch and provide strength during push-off when you walk. When the PTT is not functioning correctly, you tend to lose your arch, or become more flatfooted. This problem occurs about three times more often in women than in men, especially after the age of 40. Initially, PTT dysfunction is associated with pain on the inside of the ankle, swelling and sometimes a limp. If left unchecked, the arch appears to collapse and the pain on the inside of the ankle worsens. Eventually, if left unchecked, patients will begin to feel pain on the outside of the ankle, too.
A person with flat feet has greater load placed on the posterior tibial tendon which is the main tendon unit supporting up the arch of the foot. Throughout life, aging leads to decreased strength of muscles, tendons and ligaments. The blood supply diminishes to tendons with aging as arteries narrow. Heavier, obese patients have more weight on the arch and have greater narrowing of arteries due to atherosclerosis. In some people, the posterior tibial tendon finally gives out or tears. This is not a sudden event in most cases. Rather, it is a slow, gradual stretching followed by inflammation and degeneration of the tendon. Once the posterior tibial tendon stretches, the ligaments of the arch stretch and tear. The bones of the arch then move out of position with body weight pressing down from above. The foot rotates inward at the ankle in a movement called pronation. The arch appears collapsed, and the heel bone is tilted to the inside. The deformity can progress until the foot literally dislocates outward from under the ankle joint.
At first you may notice pain and swelling along the medial (big toe) side of the foot. This is where the posterior tibialis tendon travels from the back of the leg under the medial ankle bone to the foot. As the condition gets worse, tendon failure occurs and the pain gets worse. Some patients experience pain along the lateral (outside) edge of the foot, too. You may find that your feet hurt at the end of the day or after long periods of standing. Some people with this condition have trouble rising up on their toes. They may be unable to participate fully in sports or other recreational activities.
Posterior Tibial Tendon Dysfunction is diagnosed with careful clinical observation of the patient?s gait (walking), range of motion testing for the foot and ankle joints, and diagnostic imaging. People with flatfoot deformity walk with the heel angled outward, also called over-pronation. Although it is normal for the arch to impact the ground for shock absorption, people with PTTD have an arch that fully collapses to the ground and does not reform an arch during the entire gait period. After evaluating the ambulation pattern, the foot and ankle range of motion should be tested. Usually the affected foot will have decreased motion to the ankle joint and the hindfoot. Muscle strength may also be weaker as well. An easy test to perform for PTTD is the single heel raise where the patient is asked to raise up on the ball of his or her effected foot. A normal foot type can lift up on the toes without pain and the heel will invert slightly once the person has fully raised the heel up during the test. In early phases of PTTD the patient may be able to lift up the heel but the heel will not invert. An elongated or torn posterior tibial tendon, which is a mid to late finding of PTTD, will prohibit the patient from fully rising up on the heel and will cause intense pain to the arch. Finally diagnostic imaging, although used alone cannot diagnose PTTD, can provide additional information for an accurate diagnosis of flatfoot deformity. Xrays of the foot can show the practitioner important angular relationships of the hindfoot and forefoot which help diagnose flatfoot deformity. Most of the time, an MRI is not needed to diagnose PTTD but is a tool that should be considered in advanced cases of flatfoot deformity. If a partial tear of the posterior tibial tendon is of concern, then an MRI can show the anatomic location of the tear and the extensiveness of the injury.
Non surgical Treatment
Conservative (nonoperative) care is advised at first. A simple modification to your shoe may be all that???s needed. Sometimes purchasing shoes with a good arch support is sufficient. For other patients, an off-the-shelf (prefabricated) shoe insert works well. The orthotic is designed specifically to position your foot in good alignment. Like the shoe insert, the orthotic fits inside the shoe. These work well for mild deformity or symptoms. Over-the-counter pain relievers or antiinflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen may be helpful. If symptoms are very severe, a removable boot or cast may be used to rest, support, and stabilize the foot and ankle while still allowing function. Patients with longer duration of symptoms or greater deformity may need a customized brace. The brace provides support and limits ankle motion. After several months, the brace is replaced with a foot orthotic. A physical therapy program of exercise to stretch and strengthen the foot and leg muscles is important. The therapist will also show you how to improve motor control and proprioception (joint sense of position). These added features help prevent and reduce injuries.
Surgical correction is dependent on the severity of symptoms and the stage of deformity. The goals of surgery are to create a more functional and stable foot. There are multiple procedures available to the surgeon and it may take several to correct a flatfoot deformity. Usually surgical treatment begins with removal of inflammatory tissue and repair of the posterior tibial tendon. A tendon transfer is performed if the posterior tibial muscle is weak or the tendon is badly damaged. The most commonly used tendon is the flexor digitorum longus tendon. This tendon flexes or moves the lesser toes downward. The flexor digitorum longus tendon is utilized due to its close proximity to the posterior tibial tendon and because there are minimal side effects with its loss. The remainder of the tendon is sutured to the flexor hallucis longus tendon that flexes the big toe so that little function is loss.