There’s an easy way to tell if you have flat feet. Simply wet your feet, then stand on a flat, dry surface that will leave an imprint of your foot. A normal footprint has a wide band connecting the ball of the foot to the heel, with an indentation on the inner side of the foot. A foot with a high arch has a large indentation and a very narrow connecting band. Flat feet leave a nearly complete imprint, with almost no inward curve where the arch should be. Most people have “flexible flatfoot” as children; an arch is visible when the child rises up on the toes, but not when the child is standing. As you age, the tendons that attach to the bones of the foot grow stronger and tighten, forming the arch. But if injury or illness damages the tendons, the arch can “fall,” creating a flatfoot. In many adults, a low arch or a flatfoot is painless and causes no problems. However, a painful flatfoot can be a sign of a congenital abnormality or an injury to the muscles and tendons of the foot. Flat feet can even contribute to low back pain.
Posterior tibial tendon dysfunction is the most common cause of acquired adult flatfoot deformity. There is often no specific event that starts the problem, such as a sudden tendon injury. More commonly, the tendon becomes injured from cumulative wear and tear. Posterior tibial tendon dysfunction occurs more commonly in patients who already have a flat foot for other reasons. As the arch flattens, more stress is placed on the posterior tibial tendon and also on the ligaments on the inside of the foot and ankle. The result is a progressive disorder.
Symptoms of pain may have developed gradually as result of overuse or they may be traced to one minor injury. Typically, the pain localizes to the inside (medial) aspect of the ankle, under the medial malleolus. However, some patients will also experience pain over the outside (lateral) aspect of the hindfoot because of the displacement of the calcaneus impinging with the lateral malleolus. This usually occurs later in the course of the condition. Patients may walk with a limp or in advanced cases be disabled due to pain. They may also have noticed worsening of their flatfoot deformity.
Although you can do the “wet test” at home, a thorough examination by a doctor will be needed to identify why the flatfoot developed. Possible causes include a congenital abnormality, a bone fracture or dislocation, a torn or stretched tendon, arthritis or neurologic weakness. For example, an inability to rise up on your toes while standing on the affected foot may indicate damage to the posterior tibial tendon (PTT), which supports the heel and forms the arch. If “too many toes” show on the outside of your foot when the doctor views you from the rear, your shinbone (tibia) may be sliding off the anklebone (talus), another indicator of damage to the PTT. Be sure to wear your regular shoes to the examination. An irregular wear pattern on the bottom of the shoe is another indicator of acquired adult flatfoot. Your physician may request X-rays to see how the bones of your feet are aligned. Muscle and tendon strength are tested by asking you to move the foot while the doctor holds it.
Non surgical Treatment
Initial treatment for most patients consists of rest and anti-inflammatory medications. This will help reduce the swelling and pain associated with the condition. The long term treatment for the problem usually involves custom made orthotics and supportive shoe gear to prevent further breakdown of the foot. ESWT(extracorporeal shock wave therapy) is a novel treatment which uses sound wave technology to stimulate blood flow to the tendon to accelerate the healing process. This can help lead to a more rapid return to normal activities for most patients. If treatment is initiated early in the process, most patients can experience a return to normal activities without the need for surgery.
Stage two deformities are less responsive to conservative therapies that can be effective in mild deformities. Bone procedures are necessary at this stage in order to recreate the arch and stabilize the foot. These procedures include isolated fusion procedures, bone grafts, and/or the repositioning of bones through cuts called osteotomies. The realigned bones are generally held in place with screws, pins, plates, or staples while the bone heals. A tendon transfer may or may not be utilized depending on the condition of the posterior tibial tendon. Stage three deformities are better treated with surgical correction, in healthy patients. Patients that are unable to tolerate surgery or the prolonged healing period are better served with either arch supports known as orthotics or bracing such as the Richie Brace. Surgical correction at this stage usually requires fusion procedures such as a triple or double arthrodesis. This involves fusing the two or three major bones in the back of the foot together with screws or pins. The most common joints fused together are the subtalar joint, talonavicular joint, and the calcaneocuboid joint. By fusing the bones together the surgeon is able to correct structural deformity and alleviate arthritic pain. Tendon transfer procedures are usually not beneficial at this stage. Stage four deformities are treated similarly but with the addition of fusing the ankle joint.