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Addressing Fallen Arches

Overview

Acquired Flat Feet

he belly isn't the only part of your body subject to middle-age spread. As we get older, the years of walking and standing can cause feet to spread and flatten out as ligaments that support the arch lose their holding power. The result: the condition known as fallen arches, or flat feet. "Keep in mind that we're talking about 26 bones in the foot that are supported by a series of ligaments, muscle tendons and other connective tissue," says Glenn Gastwirth, D.P.M., deputy executive director of the American Podiatric Medicine Association in Bethesda, Maryland. "Over a period of time, the ligaments stretch out or 'give' under the pressure of your weight-especially if you're overweight. So what usually happens is you go shopping for new shoes one day and suddenly realize that you now need a size 8 when you've always worn a size 6. You may think your foot has grown, but what really happens is that the foot has spread out, both in width and length."

Causes

Most cases of flatfeet are simply the result of normal development. When that is not the case, the condition can be caused by a number of factors, including the following, Age, disease, injury, obesity or being overweight, physical abnormality, pregnancy. Flattened arches in adults may result from the stresses of aging, weight gain, and the temporary increase in elastin (protein in connective tissue) due to pregnancy. In some cases, flatfeet are caused by a physical abnormality, such as tarsal coalition (two or more bones in the foot that have grown together) or accessory navicular (an extra bone along the side of the foot). The effects of diseases such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis can lead to flatfeet. An injury (e.g., bone fracture, dislocation, sprain or tear in any of the tendons and ligaments in the foot and leg) also can cause flatfeet.

Symptoms

Depending on the cause of the flatfoot, a patient may experience one or more of the different symptoms below. Pain along the course of the posterior tibial tendon which lies on the inside of the foot and ankle. This can be associated with swelling on the inside of the ankle. Pain that is worse with activity. High intensity or impact activities, such as running, can be very difficult. Some patients can have difficulty walking or even standing for long periods of time. When the foot collapses, the heel bone may shift position and put pressure on the outside ankle bone (fibula). This can cause pain on the outside of the ankle. Arthritis in the heel also causes this same type of pain. Patients with an old injury or arthritis in the middle of the foot can have painful, bony bumps on the top and inside of the foot. These make shoewear very difficult. Occasionally, the bony spurs are so large that they pinch the nerves which can result in numbness and tingling on the top of the foot and into the toes. Diabetics may only notice swelling or a large bump on the bottom of the foot. Because their sensation is affected, people with diabetes may not have any pain. The large bump can cause skin problems and an ulcer (a sore that does not heal) may develop if proper diabetic shoewear is not used.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of flat feet or fallen arches can be made by your health practitioner and is based on the following. Clinical assessment involving visual gait assessment, as well as biomechanical assessment. A detailed family and medical history. A pain history assessment determining the location of painful symptoms. Physical palpation of the feet and painful areas. Imaging such as MRI or x-ray can be used by your practitioner to assist in the diagnosis.

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Non Surgical Treatment

Treatment of flat feet may be appropriate if there is associated foot or lower leg pain, or if the condition affects the knees or the lower back. Treatment may include using Orthoses such as an arch support, foot gymnastics or other exercises as recommended by a podiatrist/orthotist or physical therapist. In cases of severe flat feet, orthoses should be used through a gradual process to lessen discomfort. Over several weeks, slightly more material is added to the orthosis to raise the arch. These small changes allow the foot structure to adjust gradually, as well as giving the patient time to acclimatise to the sensation of wearing orthoses. Once prescribed, orthoses are generally worn for the rest of the patient's life. In some cases, surgery can provide lasting relief, and even create an arch where none existed before; it should be considered a last resort, as it is usually very time consuming and costly.

Surgical Treatment

Adult Acquired Flat Feet

Procedures may include the following. Fusing foot or ankle bones together (arthrodesis). Removing bones or bony growths, also called spurs (excision). Cutting or changing the shape of the bone (osteotomy). Cleaning the tendons' protective coverings (synovectomy). Adding tendon from other parts of your body to tendons in your foot to help balance the "pull" of the tendons and form an arch (tendon transfer). Grafting bone to your foot to make the arch rise more naturally (lateral column lengthening).

After Care

Patients may go home the day of surgery or they may require an overnight hospital stay. The leg will be placed in a splint or cast and should be kept elevated for the first two weeks. At that point, sutures are removed. A new cast or a removable boot is then placed. It is important that patients do not put any weight on the corrected foot for six to eight weeks following the operation. Patients may begin bearing weight at eight weeks and usually progress to full weightbearing by 10 to 12 weeks. For some patients, weightbearing requires additional time. After 12 weeks, patients commonly can transition to wearing a shoe. Inserts and ankle braces are often used. Physical therapy may be recommended. There are complications that relate to surgery in general. These include the risks associated with anesthesia, infection, damage to nerves and blood vessels, and bleeding or blood clots. Complications following flatfoot surgery may include wound breakdown or nonunion (incomplete healing of the bones). These complications often can be prevented with proper wound care and rehabilitation. Occasionally, patients may notice some discomfort due to prominent hardware. Removal of hardware can be done at a later time if this is an issue. The overall complication rates for flatfoot surgery are low.
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