The feet that rely on in so many ways every day are actually very complex. Most of us don’t give our feet any thought, until they are in pain. There are 26 bones in the foot and 33 joints (joints are where the bones meet up) with lots of muscles, tendons, and ligaments which means there is a lot of different parts of the foot and ankle that can get injured. In contrast, the ankle is only formed by three bones. Together, the foot and ankle allow humans to move around, support the body as it stands tall, achieve and maintain balance, and help with shock absorption. Since the foot is in contact with the ground, the brain receives a lot of input from our feet. If a foot or ankle is injured, it can be very limiting.
10 most common foot and ankle injuries
1. Ankle Sprain (when the ligaments in the ankle stretch beyond their capacity or tear, causing instability, pain, and inflammation/swelling) This can happen when you roll your ankle while stepping down unevenly.
2. Stress Fractures (hairline fractures in the feet or ankle from prolonged, high impact activities that can cause intense pain)
3. Turf toe (a sprain in the ligaments around the big toe, often from overuse when pushing off or kicking)
4. Achilles Tear (a rip in the Achilles’ tendon that connects a calf muscle to the heel. This often requires surgery and then a long bout of physical therapy for recovery)
5. Achilles Tendon Sprain (a stiff, tight Achilles’ tendon lacking an ideal length is stretched too far, causing small tears that induce excessive inflammation and pain.)
6. Plantar Fascitis (inflammation of the fascia that connects from your toes to your heel. Can vary in severity, but is most often worse in the morning upon standing for the first time).
7. Morton’s Neuromas (when a nerve in your feet is compressed by thickening tissue surrounding the nerve which can cause tingling, numbness and pain).
8. Heel Spurs (Calcium deposit that builds up, usually on the back of your foot/heel, that agitates the soft tissue surrounding it which increases inflammation and pain in the area)
9. Bunions (the great toe joint will shift, mostly due to ill-fitting shoes, that increase stress on the bones of the foot. With this shift comes discomfort and pain if not addressed)
10. Decreased ankle and foot mobility (this is less of an injury, but rather limitation that if not addressed, can contribute to injuries in the future. Ankle and foot mobility, especially of the big toe, are necessary to walk normally. If you are lacking mobility, your walking pattern will change without you even noticing it. When your walking pattern changes, it can put excess stress through other joints and muscles that will experience overuse.
All of the injuries listed above are treated by physical therapists with a different combination of the same modalities, including strengthening, balance and mobility exercises, manual therapy (hands on techniques) to improve joint play and soft tissue pliability, and a variety of pain relief techniques. Physical therapy is challenging, but it is so rewarding to learn how your body works and how you can support it during injury. The early you seek out help, the easier/quicker it is to heal.
Many times, it is best to create a team of healthcare professionals that can work together to help you through an injury. Physical therapists are very proficient in treating musculoskeletal injures, like the ones listed above. They are trained in the medical side of an injury to assess for red flags and follow a protocol for optimal healing, while being able to offer a completely different approach to help an injured muscle or joint immediately after it was injured (as long as only conservative treatment is needed).
It is best to see a physical therapist immediately after injury so that you can facilitate healing quickly. Nowadays, there are online clinics like mine (permission2move.com) that can see you virtually to help you determine your best first steps. Having a professional walk you through your healing is much better than trying to guess what you should do on your own. If you cannot walk naturally or if the pain interferes with your daily life, it is imperative to see a professional. Imaging is not always necessary, but can be helpful to know if and where there is a fracture; conservative treatment is appropriate for all of the injuries above, but surgery could still be necessary for some, like Achilles tear. Work together with your doctor and physical therapist to come up with the best treatment plan for you!