The majority of people will experience a flattening of the arch of the feet as we age. This is a natural part of the aging process for most, as the years of abuse we put on our feet causes weakening of the soft tissue structures that support the arch of the foot and gravity dictates that the feet tend to flatten out. When flattening of one of the feet occurs rapidly over a relatively short period of time this may signal a more serious problem.
As discussed above, many health conditions can create a painful flatfoot. Damage to the posterior tibial tendon is the most common cause of AAFD. The posterior tibial tendon is one of the most important tendons of the leg. It starts at a muscle in the calf, travels down the inside of the lower leg and attaches to the bones on the inside of the foot. The main function of this tendon is to hold up the arch and support your foot when you walk. If the tendon becomes inflamed or torn, the arch will slowly collapse. Women and people over 40 are more likely to develop problems with the posterior tibial tendon. Other risk factors include obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Having flat feet since childhood increases the risk of developing a tear in the posterior tibial tendon. In addition, people who are involved in high impact sports, such as basketball, tennis, or soccer, may have tears of the tendon from repetitive use. Inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can cause a painful flatfoot. This type of arthritis attacks not only the cartilage in the joints, but also the ligaments that support the foot. Inflammatory arthritis not only causes pain, but also causes the foot to change shape and become flat. The arthritis can affect the back of the foot or the middle of foot, both of which can result in a fallen arch.
Symptoms shift around a bit, depending on what stage of PTTD you?re in. For instance, you?re likely to start off with tendonitis, or inflammation of the posterior tibial tendon. This will make the area around the inside of your ankle and possibly into your arch swollen, reddened, warm to the touch, and painful. Inflammation may actually last throughout the stages of PTTD. The ankle will also begin to roll towards the inside of the foot (pronate), your heel may tilt, and you may experience some pain in your leg (e.g. shin splints). As the condition progresses, the toes and foot begin to turn outward, so that when you look at your foot from the back (or have a friend look for you, because-hey-that can be kind of a difficult
maneuver to pull off) more toes than usual will be visible on the outside (i.e. the side with the pinky toe). At this stage, the foot?s still going to be flexible, although it will likely have flattened somewhat due to the lack of support from the posterior tibial tendon. You may also find it difficult to stand on your toes. Finally, you may reach a stage in which your feet are inflexibly flat. At this point, you may experience pain below your ankle on the outside of your foot, and you might even develop arthritis in the ankle.
Starting from the knee down, check for any bowing of the tibia. A tibial varum will cause increased medial stress on the foot and ankle. This is essential to consider in surgical planning. Check the gastrocnemius muscle and Achilles complex via a straight and bent knee check for equinus. If the range of motion improves to at least neutral with bent knee testing of the Achilles complex, one may consider a gastrocnemius recession. If the Achilles complex is still tight with bent knee testing, an Achilles lengthening may be necessary. Check the posterior tibial muscle along its entire course. Palpate the muscle and observe the tendon for strength with a plantarflexion and inversion stress test. Check the flexor muscles for strength in order to see if an adequate transfer tendon is available. Check the anterior tibial tendon for size and strength.
Non surgical Treatment
Flatfoot deformity can be treated conservatively or with surgical intervention depending on the severity of the condition. When people notice their arches flattening, they should immediately avoid non-supportive shoes such as flip-flops, sandals or thin-soled tennis shoes. Theses shoes will only worsen the flatfoot deformity and exacerbate arch pain. Next, custom orthotics are essential for people with collapsed arches. Over-the-counter insoles only provide cushion and padding to the arch, whereas custom orthotics are fabricated to specifically fit the patient?s foot and provide support in the arch where the posterior tibial tendon is unable to anymore. Use of custom orthotics in the early phases of flatfoot or PTTD can prevent worsening of symptoms and prevent further attenuation or injury to the posterior tibial tendon. In more severe cases of flatfoot deformity an ankle foot orthosis (AFO) such as a Ritchie brace is needed. This brace provides more support to the arch and hindfoot rather than an orthotic but can be bulky in normal shoegear. Additional treatment along with use of custom orthotics is use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) such as Advil, Motrin, or Ibuprofen which can decrease inflammation to the posterior tibial tendon. If pain is severe, the patient may need to be placed in a below the knee air walker boot for several weeks which will allow the tendon to rest and heal, especially if a posterior tibial tendon tear is noted on MRI.
If cast immobilization fails, surgery is the next alternative. Treatment goals include eliminating pain, halting deformity progression and improving mobility. Subtalar Arthroereisis, 15 minute outpatient procedure, may correct flexible flatfoot deformity (hyperpronation). The procedure involves placing an implant under the ankle joint (sinus tarsi) to prevent abnormal motion. Very little recovery time is required and it is completely reversible if necessary. Ask your Dallas foot doctor for more information about this exciting treatment possibility.