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.
The posterior tibial tendon, which connects the bones inside the foot to the calf, is responsible for supporting the foot during movement and holding up the arch. Gradual stretching and tearing of the posterior tibial tendon can cause failure of the ligaments in the arch. Without support, the bones in the feet fall out of normal position, rolling the foot inward. The foot’s arch will collapse completely over time, resulting in adult acquired flatfoot. The ligaments and tendons holding up the arch can lose elasticity and strength as a result of aging. Obesity, diabetes, and hypertension can increase the risk of developing this condition. Adult acquired flatfoot is seen more often in women than in men and in those 40 or older.
Patients will usually describe their initial symptoms as “ankle pain”, as the PT Tendon becomes painful around the inside of the ankle joint. The pain will become more intense as the foot flattens out, due to the continued stretching and tearing of the PT Tendon. As the arches continue to fall, and pronation increases, the heel bone (Calcaneus) tilts into a position where it pinches against the ankle bone (Fibula), causing pain on both the inside and outside of the ankle. As the foot spends increased time in a flattened, or deformed position, Arthritis can begin to affect the joints of the foot, causing additional pain.
The adult acquired flatfoot, secondary to posterior tibial tendon dysfunction, is diagnosed in a number of ways with no single test proven to be totally reliable. The most accurate diagnosis is made by a skilled clinician utilizing observation and hands on evaluation of the foot and ankle. Observation of the foot in a walking examination is most reliable. The affected foot appears more pronated and deformed compared to the unaffected foot. Muscle testing will show a strength deficit. An easy test to perform in the office is the single foot raise. A patient is asked to step with full body weight on the symptomatic foot, keeping the unaffected foot off the ground. The patient is then instructed to “raise up on the tip toes” of the affected foot. If the posterior tibial tendon has been attenuated or ruptured, the patient will be unable to lift the heel off the floor and rise onto the toes. In less severe cases, the patient will be able to rise on the toes, but the heel will not be noted to invert as it normally does when we rise onto the toes. X-rays can be helpful but are not diagnostic of the adult acquired flatfoot. Both feet – the symptomatic and asymptomatic – will demonstrate a flatfoot deformity on x-ray. Careful observation may show a greater severity of deformity on the affected side.
Non surgical Treatment
Because of the progressive nature of PTTD, early treatment is critical. If treated soon enough, symptoms may resolve without the need for surgery and progression of the condition can be stopped. If left untreated, PTTD may create an extremely flat foot, painful arthritis in the foot and ankle, and will limit your ability to walk, run, and other activities. Your podiatrist may recommend one or more of these non-surgical treatments to manage your PTTD. Orthotic devices or bracing. To give your arch the support it needs, your foot and ankle surgeon may recommend an ankle brace or a custom orthotic device that fits into your shoe to support the arch. Immobilization. A short-leg cast or boot may be worn to immobilize the foot and allow the tendon to heal. Physical therapy. Ultrasound therapy and stretching exercises may help rehabilitate the tendon and muscle following immobilization. Medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, help reduce the pain and inflammation. Shoe modifications. Your foot and ankle surgeon may recommend changes in your footwear.
Good to excellent results for more than 80% of patients have been reported at five years’ follow up for the surgical interventions recommended below. However, the postoperative recovery is a lengthy process, and most surgical procedures require patients to wear a plaster cast for two to three months. Although many patients report that their function is well improved by six months, in our experience a year is required to recover truly and gain full functional improvement after the surgery. Clearly, some patients are not candidates for such major reconstructive surgery.