Tendons do a lot of work. In fact, a great deal of what happens when you walk can be related to tendons tugging and pulling in appropriate ways in their proper places. With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that on occasion, (probably because we too often forget to send them Thank you cards), tendons may decide that they’ve had it. They may buck their responsibilities, shirk their work, and in all other ways cease to function properly. And that may mean bad news for you. Take the posterior tibial tendon: it runs from the bottom of the calf, goes right under that bump on the inside of the ankle (the medial malleolus) and ends up attaching itself to a bone on the inside of the middle of your foot (the navicular bone). It’s the main tendon that keeps the arch of your foot in place, and it helps a bunch in walking, too. Over time, though, we tend to put a lot of stress on this faithful tendon, especially if we’ve put on extra weight, or do a lot of activities that stress it out, walking, running, hiking, or climbing stairs. Sometimes athletes (who do a lot of that walking and running stuff) may put so much stress on the tendon that it tears suddenly. But for many of us, damage may take place gradually (i.e. the tendon stretches out) until the tendon tells us that it flat out quits. (It sometimes doesn’t even give two weeks notice.) In short, you may develop posterior tibial tendon dysfunction (PTTD).
There are a number of theories as to why the tendon becomes inflamed and stops working. It may be related to the poor blood supply within the tendon. Increasing age, inflammatory arthritis, diabetes and obesity have been found to be causes.
Not everyone with adult flatfoot has problems with pain. Those who do usually experience it around the ankle or in the heel. The pain is usually worse with activity, like walking or standing for extended periods. Sometimes, if the condition develops from arthritis in the foot, bony spurs along the top and side of the foot develop and make wearing shoes more painful. Diabetic patients need to watch for swelling or large lumps in the feet, as they may not notice any pain. They are also at higher risk for developing significant deformities from their flatfoot.
Clinicians need to recognize the early stage of this syndrome which includes pain, swelling, tendonitis and disability. The musculoskeletal portion of the clinical exam can help determine the stage of the disease. It is important to palpate the posterior tibial tendon and test its muscle strength. This is tested by asking patient to plantarflex and invert the foot. Joint range of motion is should be assessed as well. Stiffness of the joints may indicate longstanding disease causing a rigid deformity. A weightbearing examination should be performed as well. A complete absence of the medial longitudinal arch is often seen. In later stages the head of the talus bone projects outward to the point of a large “lump” in the arch. Observing the patient’s feet from behind shows a significant valgus rotation of the heel. From behind, the “too many toes” sign may be seen as well. This is when there is abducution of the forefoot in the transverse plane allowing the toes to be seen from behind. Dysfunction of the posterior tibial tendon can be assessed by asking the patient to stand on his/her toes on the affected foot. If they are unable to, this indicates the disease is in a more advanced stage with the tendon possibly completely ruptured.
Non surgical Treatment
The adult acquired flatfoot is best treated early. There is no recommended home treatment other than the general avoidance of prolonged weightbearing in non-supportive footwear until the patient can be seen in the office of the foot and ankle specialist. In Stage I, the inflammation and tendon injury will respond to rest, protected ambulation in a cast, as well as anti-inflammatory therapy. Follow-up treatment with custom-molded foot orthoses and properly designed athletic or orthopedic footwear are critical to maintain stability of the foot and ankle after initial symptoms have been calmed. Once the tendon has been stretched, the foot will become deformed and visibly rolled into a pronated position at the ankle. Non-surgical treatment has a significantly lower chance of success. Total immobilization in a cast or Camwalker may calm down symptoms and arrest progression of the deformity in a smaller percentage of patients. Usually, long-term use of a brace known as an ankle foot orthosis is required to stop progression of the deformity without surgery. A new ankle foot orthosis known as the Richie Brace, offered by PAL Health Systems, has proven to show significant success in treating Stage II posterior tibial dysfunction and the adult acquired flatfoot. This is a sport-style brace connected to a custom corrected foot orthotic device that fits well into most forms of lace-up footwear, including athletic shoes. The brace is light weight and far more cosmetically appealing than the traditional ankle foot orthosis previously prescribed.
For those patients with PTTD that have severe deformity or have not improved with conservative treatments, surgery may be necessary to return them to daily activity. Surgery for PTTD may include repair of the diseased tendon and possible tendon transfer to a nearby healthy tendon, surgery on the surrounding bones or joints to prevent biomechanical abnormalities that may be a contributing factor or both.