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.
The cause of posterior tibial tendon insufficiency is not completely understood. The condition commonly does not start from one acute trauma but is a process of gradual degeneration of the soft tissues supporting the medial (inner) side of the foot. It is most often associated with a foot that started out somewhat flat or pronated (rolled inward). This type of foot places more stress on the medial soft tissue structures, which include the posterior tibial tendon and ligaments on the inner side of the foot. Children nearly fully grown can end up with flat feet, the majority of which are no problem. However, if the deformity is severe enough it can cause significant functional limitations at that age and later on if soft tissue failure occurs. Also, young adults with normally aligned feet can acutely injure their posterior tibial tendon from a trauma and not develop deformity. The degenerative condition in patients beyond their twenties is different from the acute injuries in young patients or adolescent deformities, where progression of deformity is likely to occur.
Often, this condition is only present in one foot, but it can affect both. Adult acquired flatfoot symptoms vary, but can swelling of the foot’s inner side and aching heel and arch pain. Some patients experience no pain, but others may experience severe pain. Symptoms may increase during long periods of standing, resulting in fatigue. Symptoms may change over time as the condition worsens. The pain may move to the foot’s outer side, and some patients may develop arthritis in the ankle and foot.
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
Treatment depends very much upon a patient?s symptoms, functional goals, degree and specifics of deformity, and the presence of arthritis. Some patients get better without surgery. Rest and immobilization, orthotics, braces and physical therapy all may be appropriate. With early-stage disease that involves pain along the tendon, immobilization with a boot for a period of time can relieve stress on the tendon and reduce the inflammation and pain. Once these symptoms have resolved, patients are often transitioned into an orthotic that supports the inside aspect of the hindfoot. For patients with more significant deformity, a larger ankle brace may be necessary.
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.