A variety of foot problems can lead to adult acquired flatfoot deformity (AAFD), a condition that results in a fallen arch with the foot pointed outward. Most people - no matter what the cause of their flatfoot - can be helped with orthotics and braces. In patients who have tried orthotics and braces without any relief, surgery can be a very effective way to help with the pain and deformity. This article provides a brief overview of the problems that can result in AAFD. Further details regarding the most common conditions that cause an acquired flatfoot and their treatment options are provided in separate articles. Links to those articles are provided.
There are many different causes of flat feet, which can be separated into two main categories. The first category, congenital flat foot, is a condition that one is born with or is predisposed to at birth. This type includes the completely asymptomatic, pediatric flexible flat foot-by far the most common form of congenital flat foot. Flexible means that an arch is present until weight is put on the foot, at which time the arch disappears. This foot type is a result of the fact that all people are born with different physical features. Some people have bigger noses than others, just as some people have flatter feet (of course, there is no known correlation between the two). Any alteration in the many building blocks of the foot can influence its shape. At the other end of the spectrum, yet within the same category of congenital flat foot, exist several rare, more severe forms of flat foot. These severe conditions include Vertical Talus, Congenital Calcaneal Valgus, and Tarsal Coalitions - all of which are more rigid (no arch with or without weight on the foot) and definitely symptomatic. Luckily, these are much less common, but can usually be identified by specialists at the time of presentation and treated appropriately. The second category, acquired flat foot, develops over time, rather than at birth. Many different factors can contribute to the development of flat feet. These include the types of shoes a child wears, a child's sitting or sleeping positions, compensation for other abnormalities further up the leg, or more severe factors such as rupture of ligaments or tendons in the foot. Very commonly, the reason for flat feet is that the foot is compensating for a tight Achilles tendon. If the Achilles tendon is tight, then it causes the foot to point down, or to plantarflex (as occurs when stepping on the accelerator of your car). Even minimal amounts of plantarflexion can simulate a longer leg on that particular side, assuming that the other foot is in the normal position. The body therefore tries to compensate by pronating, or flattening out the arch, thereby making up for the perceived extra length on the affected side.
Symptoms that should be checked by a pediatrician include foot pain, sores or pressure areas on the inner side of the foot, a stiff foot, limited side-to-side foot motion, or limited up-and-down ankle motion. For further treatment you should see a pediatric orthopedic surgeon or podiatrist experienced in childhood foot conditions.
An examination of the foot is enough for the health care provider to diagnose flat foot. However, the cause must be determined. If an arch develops when the patient stands on his or her toes, the flat foot is called flexible and no treatment or further work-up is necessary. If there is pain associated with the foot or if the arch does not develop with toe-standing, x-rays are necessary. If a tarsal coalition is suspected, a CT scan is often ordered. If a posterior tibial tendon injury is suspected, your health care provider may recommend an MRI.
Non Surgical Treatment
Most cases of flatfeet do not require treatment. However, if there is pain, or if the condition is caused by something other than normal development, there are several treatment options. Self-care options include rest, choosing non-weight-bearing exercise (e.g., swimming, cycling), weight loss, and avoiding high heels. Flexible flatfeet with some pain can be relieved with the use of orthotics-shoe inserts that support the arch-and/or heel wedges (in some cases). If pronation is a factor, special shoes can be worn that lift the arch and correct the inward leaning. Physical therapy may also be prescribed to stretch or lengthen the heel cord and other tendons. For rigid or inflexible flatfeet, treatment varies depending on the cause. Tarsal coalition if often treated with rest and the wearing of a cast. If this is ineffective, surgery can be done to separate the bones or to reset the bones into a correct position. If the flatfoot is caused by an injury to the tendons in the foot or ankle, rest, anti-inflammatory medications (e.g., ibuprofen), and the use of shoe inserts and ankle braces often relieve symptoms. In severe cases, surgery is performed to repair the tendon or to fuse some joints in the foot into a corrected position to reduce stress on the tendon. The prognosis after surgery is generally good. Complications include pain and some loss of ankle motion, especially when trying to turn the foot in or out. This may be improved with physical therapy.
In cases of flat feet that have progressed substantially or have failed to improve with non-surgical treatment, surgery may be required and in some advanced cases, surgery may be the only option. Your foot and ankle surgeon will determine the best approach for you.