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 few other things that can weaken the tendon (and thus move that quitting time a little closer). Women are much more likely than men to develop this condition, and it often takes place around the same time as menopause (around age 60 or so). Steroid use (not always illegal-this may come from having cortisone shots in the area) and smoking may also increase the likelihood for developing PTTD, since steroids tend to weaken tendons. A history of injury in the area, arthritis, or an already flat foot may also serve to push the tendon to declare, “That’s the last straw!” (Silly tendon. As if it even knows what straw is.)
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.
Your podiatrist is very familiar with tendons that have just about had enough, and will likely be able to diagnose this condition by performing a physical exam of your foot. He or she will probably examine the area visually and by feel, will inquire about your medical history (including past pain or injuries), and may also observe your feet as you walk. You may also be asked to attempt standing on your toes. This may be done by having you lift your ‘good’ foot (the one without the complaining tendon) off the ground, standing only on your problem foot. (You may be instructed to place your hands against the wall to help with balance.) Then, your podiatrist will ask you to try to go up on your toes on the bad foot. If you have difficulty doing so, it may indicate a problem with your posterior tibial tendon.
Some imaging technology may be used to diagnose this condition, although it’s more likely the doctor will rely primarily on a physical exam. However, he or she may order scans such as an MRI or CT scan to look at your foot’s interior, and X-rays might also be helpful in a diagnosis.
Treating PTTD is almost always easier the earlier you catch it. So, the first step in treatment is to see your doctor as soon as you begin experiencing painful symptoms. However, once your condition has been diagnosed, your podiatrist will likely try to give the upset tendon a bit of a break so it’ll calm down and stop being so painful. This can often be accomplished by immobilizing the foot using tape and padding, braces, or casts, depending on what your podiatrist believes will work best for you, and depending on the severity of your condition.
You may also be instructed to reduce inflammation by applying ice to the area (usually 40 minutes on and 20 minutes off, with a thin towel between you and the ice). Or, you might take anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (steroidal anti-inflammatory meds are actually likely to make this problem worse, and are not usually recommended in treating PTTD), or use ultrasound therapy.
Once the inflammation has gone down a bit, your podiatrist may recommend using orthotics (prescription shoe inserts) to support your damaged arch. Ankle braces can also be helpful.
If these conservative treatments fail to rein in your rogue tendon, then surgery may be necessary to reduce your pain. Your doctor can talk with you about surgical options available to you. These may include tendon transfers, bone fusion, and bone grafts.
If all goes well, (and if you treat it with the proper respect it deserves), your tendon should get back to work just fine.