I received a question on Twitter that I’ve heard before:
Question: “Once the 2nd toe has ‘crossed over,’ can the stretches help to avoid surgery? Would love to walk barefoot again without pain.”
The short answer is yes, but it depends on the source of the pain. The skinny is that the hammer toe and the pain may not be the same thing.
Second MTP synovitis pain is experienced in the ball of the foot. Hammer toe pain is felt on the knuckle (top of PIP joint) sticking up and hitting the top of the shoe. These are clear and different pains. And it does not require ultrasound or MRI to tell the difference. Just a few questions and a bit of simple exam will do. The problem is we look at the foot, SEE the hammer toe sticking up and maybe crossing over and at the same time feel pain, thus they are the same problem.
True, true, maybe unrelated.
Then we see a doc and the offer to fix the “obvious” problem, the hammer toe, is made. Don’t get me wrong, hammer toes need to be fixed often, but only when they are THE PROBLEM.
The problems with this logic, actually lack of logic, are many. The hammer toe often needs no surgery, unless it is the actual source of pain at top of knuckle. The underlying true problem is all the while missed and never addressed.
Here is the kicker, the original inciting problem, the isolated gastrocnemius contracture can be fixed without surgery thus fixing the actual pain, the second MTP synovitis. Sometimes one must think outside the box.
If you have been reading my crap information on second MTP synovitis you already have a good idea where I am going with this.
I have one correction, actually an omission, regarding Part 1. In Part 1 I talked about the notion that the 2nd metatarsal has grown “too long.” Here is another knee slapper, actually even more ridiculous;being told your 2nd metatarsal has “dropped.” Seriously, DROPPED? These two long held reasons, actually myths, for problems related to the 2nd metatarsal, plantar callosities and second MTP synovitis, are short sighted and demonstrate a total lack of biomechanical understanding. To quote my favorite online quip from the Musings of a Dinosaur, Rule number 10, “A bad idea held by many people for a long time is still an bad idea.”
Law 10: A bad idea held by many people for a long time is still an bad idea
So let’s just get this straight for the sake of a crystal clear understanding, the 2nd metatarsal does not change in time. It does not grow longer and it does not drop, period.
The isolated gastrocnemius contracture is the underlying problem, and the only underlying problem, causing second MTP synovitis, which eventually leads to 2nd hammertoe and more eventually to a 2nd MTP joint dislocation. BOOM! Another scoop, I called it! I know what you are thinking and before you get going, hear me out.
So, let’s take this on step by step. As we age, the majority of us experience a gradual tightening of our calves: the isolated gastrocnemius contracture. It is almost always unnoticeable, so you are unaware it is there or that it is causing a problem. Over time the isolated gastrocnemius contracture will do cumulative harm to your foot and ankle in many areas and ways. Because of this calf tightness, the amount of pressure born on the front of your foot, the metatarsal heads or ball of your foot, increases.
All the while our forefoot anatomy has not changed, such as the magical growing or dropped 2nd metatarsal. The statement “Your 2nd metatarsal has dropped” has always cracked me up and at the same time gotten a lot of patients in trouble. The 2nd metatarsal has not changed one bit. It is well known to be the longest and the stiffest metatarsal (due to the “Keystone effect”) of the five in the great majority of humans. We were born this way and this anatomy does not change. The only thing that has changed is the isolated gastrocnemius contracture creeping up on us.
So, if there is going to be more pressure born to the metatarsal region because of the isolated gastrocnemius contracture it will be focused on the 2nd metatarsal head because of our natural anatomy. Step after step the pressure focused on this one poor innocent bystander, the 2nd metatarsal head, creates damage to the second MTP joint. You could say the 2nd MT is a victim of circumstances.
Then comes the pain and usually swelling along with the painful ball or lump feeling on the bottom of the foot. BTW, one will never experience actual swelling with a Morton’s neuroma. A kissing cousin, a metatarsal stress fracture, far and away most commonly of the 2nd metatarsal (any guesses why the 2nd is most common? Hint: it is not a “dropped” 2nd metatarsal) is characteristically pain and swelling is exclusively on the top of the foot.
But I digress. The 2nd MTP joint capsule and synovium (joint lining whose purpose is to make joint fluid providing nutrients for the cartilage) becomes angry and inflamed trying to solve the problem of the repetitive trauma and there is excessive joint fluid produced. This is exactly what our bodies are supposed to do when stressed in this manner. This is the inflammatory response and is a good thing unless the underlying mechanical problem is not corrected, then it becomes a chronic inflammation.
The joint becomes distended much like blowing up a balloon and as a result the structural support system becomes stretched out. This includes the collateral ligaments and the plantar plate. Left unattended, voilà, you have a hammer toe. Wait longer and you will get to experience that mysterious dislocation syndrome.
Just in case you need additional help with this concept watch my animation of how you get an acquired second hammer toe:
This is not trauma, or some random mysterious inflammation, or a only plantar plate rupture, and it is definitely not a dropped second metatarsal. You can’t avoid getting older, but you can treat this problem in development and better yet you can prevent the second crucial step by stretching your calves. It’s your choice, symptomatically treat your foot or fix the problem and stretch your calves.
God bless the Beverly Hillbillies. Doubtlessly one of the best scenes depicting their countryfied ignorance was when the doorbell would ring and Jethro would say to Jed, “Uncle Jed, there goes that bell again, next thing you know someone’s gonna come a knockin’ at the door.” Classic.
Well, the way my colleagues, both fellowship trained foot and ankle orthopaedic surgeons and my step brothers, podiatrists, are approaching the spectrum of 2nd MTP synovitis, eventual hammertoe formation, and even more eventual second MTP dislocation is really no different than Jethro and Jed on the doorbell.
Most everyone is waiting for the knock at the door because they don’t know what the doorbell is about. Not a clue!
They are waiting way too long to deal with this problem, but they don’t know it. Pity…for you. In the case of foot and ankle orthopods, they at least are not waiting until the MTP joint dislocates. Currently most of us have gone on a rampage of doing a Weil osteotomy combined with repair of plantar plate ruptures, the precursor to dislocation and part of a hammertoe. In fact there are whole systems developed by both Smith & Nephew, and Arthrex for this purpose. All I have to say about these innovations is “If you build it they will come.”
The “pre-dislocation syndrome,” a term used by many, is full of mystery and intrigue.
How would one pose this concept to a patient anyway? Doctor says to patient: “The pain, swelling and hammertoe you have is called pre-dislocation syndrome. We don’t know what it is or what caused it (which means we don’t know how to treat it), but we do know what will eventually happen, your toe is going to dislocate.” Speaking of letting the cat out of the bag.
Here is another favorite line I hear way too often from my patients: “They told me the reason for my problem is that my 2nd metatarsal has grown too long, so it has to be shortened.” And this is said with a straight face. Seriously, a 2nd metatarsal that has grown too long? Believe me when I say something has changed to force this situation, but it is definitely not the magical growth of ones 2nd metatarsal midlife.
By the way, the podiatrists have gotten fully on board and are performing these procedures with reckless abandon. Everybody is joining in on the party.
…letting the cat out of the bag.
Unfortunately this whole issue is where medicine and technology goes haywire all to often today.
Systems and techniques like this are developed mostly because we can.
They seem like a good idea on paper. But do they really work?
In our profession these same docs continually yell out the mantra “where’s the evidence?” Well, I’m going to call them on this one and say, “where’s your evidence?” That would be a big Blutarsky, zero point zero. If and when the evidence comes forth it will be mostly about semi-straight toes and little about patient satisfaction or problem resolution.
…where’s your evidence
I would estimate that in excess of 1000 of these reconstructive procedures are being done every day in the U.S…based on nothing. I am also going to go out on a limb and say this concept is doomed and in time will not be the answer. That is, if we ever get any clinical evidence to tell us how they are doing.
So all the while we will continue to merrily cut away…until we find out it was not a good idea.
“Okay Mr. AO smarty pants, what is the reason we develop 2nd MTP synovitis and a hammertoe?” Stay tuned while I think about it and I will be back with an answer in a few days.
The science backing plantar fascial stretching (PFS) is not convincing to say the least. So, how about a little common sense if you’re not convinced yet. Let’s make the isolated gastrocnemius contracture and calf stretching sexy, what do you say?
First, let’s examine the act of PFS. It is not easy to do and requires one to be barefoot and sitting. Awkward! Yet calf stretching is so easy to do: anywhere, anytime, and done with your shoes on.
Pure collagenous structures like the plantar fascia and the Achilles tendon really don’t stretch much, if any. Let me be even more clear, they don’t stretch unless we use a knife. Certainly they do not “move” compared to muscle and it’s surrounding weaker, less substantial connective/collagenous tissue. Spending ones time stretching the plantar fascia is like moving a mountain. But I digress. The plantar fascia is not even the problem, so even if one could stretch it, why do it?
Here are two repeatable and simple daily occurrences that show the plantar fascia being tight is not the problem, thus PFS is misguided.
“So much of what we do everyday is habit based on what we saw someone do or what we were told to do in the past.”
Why does wearing higher heels (yes, I said higher, not high) like Dansko’s or mild wedges, so often give temporary relief? Go ahead, be honest, release your guilt and admit that these type shoes feel better. I know that you have been categorically told to never wear those shoes and wear flats/supportive shoes, but that does not make it right. So much of what we do everyday is habit based on what we saw someone do or what we were told to do. But could this ‘any heel is bad’ concept be wrong? Damn right it could be. Go ahead and wear those higher heels if you want, they just might make you feel better. One would think that the windlass effect in the foot would place the plantar fascia under an acute, increased tensile strain and incite immediate pain, not relief, with the use of any heel. This would happen because the toes are dorsiflexed (raised up), which places more tension on the plantar fascia. Look it up! What higher heels actually do is immediately relax the gastrocnemius a bit, which in turn reduces the linked tension on the plantar fascia. If someone has a better explanation, bring it.
Have you ever noticed the diagrams of the foot and the tearing and the inflammatory fire representing plantar fasciitis. They always show the heel up in the air near toe off when the toes are dorsiflexed and the plantar fascia is under maximal strain or tension. OUCH! See! It’s so obvious, yet so utterly wrong. This is where misperception and urban myth runs amuck. The plantar fasciitis pain experienced during walking gait is not when your heel strikes the ground and it is definitely not after the heel raises and the toes roll up as you toe off. The pain is always experienced at a precise time in the gait cycle giving the characteristic shortened gait of plantar fasciitis, as well as many other problems that result from an isolated gastrocnemius contracture. It is the brief time just before the heel raises, not after. This is because the gastrocnemius reaches it’s length limit and runs out of room and the stride is shortened to subconsciously avoid the pain produced as the plantar fascia comes under intense tension over a very short time. This is also why going downstairs and walking uphill is routinely more difficult: it requires more dorsiflexion.
The evidence abounds and is growing everyday as to the association between the isolated gastrocnemius contracture and plantar fasciitis as well as many other foot and ankle problems. Why do we (doctors, patients, physical therapists. trainers, etc.) categorically deny what is right there in front of us? The literature is finally catching up to this fact. Just sit back and watch over the next 5 years as the powerful, damaging effects that the isolated gastrocnemius contracture exerts upon the human foot and ankle becomes common knowledge. Who knows, calf stretching might even rise to sexy status.
Plantar fascial stretching for plantar fasciitis is the rage, but it’s not effective. Here is why! (Part 1 of 2)
Plantar fascial stretching (PFS) is definitely hot right now. It is all over the internet. In fact, it has attained sexy status. People want to talk about it almost as much as they want to talk about their orthotics. What a shame, because PFS (and orthotics for that matter) does little, if anything, at least to fix the real problem that needs fixing. Yes, I am saying that if you are pinning your hopes on PFS you are likely wasting your time. I am not saying you will not improve, I am saying your PF may improve, but only by luck. This is blasphemy no doubt,(for who would question something that has attained sexy status) but hear me out.
Let’s first examine why PFS might have some success, because it does. PFS also stretches, albeit poorly, your soleus and a bit of your gastrocnemius at the same time. So PFS might inadvertently do a little bit of good where it counts, but it is serendipitous and collateral at best. It also takes up time and we all know time can be beneficial for plantar fasciitis and so many other things.
I am not saying that PFS is bad, because it is not. What I am saying is you are putting your eggs in the wrong basket if that is all you are doing.
PFS is untenable for several good reasons.
Foremost, as I stated above, PFS does not even address the underlying cause of plantar fasciitis: an isolated gastrocnemius contracture. I can’t state it any more direct or simple than this.
“PFS does not even address the underlying cause of plantar fasciitis: an isolated gastrocnemius contracture”
Let’s examine the two articles that put PFS on the map. These originating PFS works were published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery in two successive parts in 2003 and 2006. While these well intentioned studies basically attained Level I status, they were not well designed or executed. There were significant protocol inequities and bias towards the PFS group. For instance Group A, doing the PFS, was instructed to perform their PFS exercises prior to getting out of bed, while Group B, doing the Achilles stretching, were to stretch “sometime” after getting out of bed. The timing of the stretching in the two groups does not seem like a big difference until one looks at the significant data. While the two groups were basically equivalent as to overall results (which is the goal, right?), including overall pain reduction and quality of life, the most significant differences were found in reduction of pain experienced upon the first few steps out of bed in the morning. Go figure that the most striking claim and difference between the two groups was that Group A experienced significant reduction of pain arising out of bed first thing in the morning just after they had stretched their plantar fascia (and their calves a bit also).
In the second edition of this two part series in 2006 these authors unwittingly fessed up to an addition to the PFS Group A protocol that was omitted from the 2003 article. “The patients were instructed to follow the assigned protocol three times per day, and those in the plantar fascia-stretching group were encouraged to perform it prior to any weight-bearing.” This means they were doing the PFS potentially many more times per day, while Group B did not perform any additional calf stretches. Folks, this is a serious bias, but it is Evidence Based Medicine!
In the end, Groups A and B where not actually statistically different, yet we are enamored by PFS regardless. Did anyone actually read these two articles or did we just look at the pictures? Just because something is popular or sexy does not mean it is true, which brings me to the next point.
The very same senior author promoting PFS finally saw the light in 2011 publishing again in JBJS “Association Between Plantar Fasciitis and Isolated Contracture of the Gastrocnemius”. The association of the isolated gastrocnemius contracture and plantar fasciitis is given it’s due by the very same author who denounced Achilles (gastrocnemius) tendon stretching as ineffective when compared to PFS in 2003 and 2006. Please, make up your mind.
Check back Tuesday, April 28th for Part 2 of this article.
A couple of years ago in our clinic a rotating 29 year old female orthopaedic resident started to present a new patient to me out in the hall and before she could get much out I interrupted her and said “let me guess, a 56 year old female?”. She reacted a bit like I was patient profiling, which I was, making such a bold statement with little, if any information. She responded as politely as possible in her heavy Tennessee accent “now Dr. AO, how can you say something like that?”. “Because I am probably right” I responded. She then had to reluctantly admit that it was indeed a 57 year old female.
“…in her heavy Tennessee accent ‘now Dr. AO, how can you say something like that?'”
Fast forwards, after this same resident has been around for a couple of weeks in my world and back in the same hallway with another new patient. I ask “what do you have?” referring to the patient on the other side of the door. She responded with a resigning attitude “Another 56 year old female!”.
BOOM, told ya!
The scientific evidence has existed for years and is mounting by the day that the isolated gastrocnemius contracture is here and it is real and it is casing the majority of non-traumatic acquired foot and ankle pathology we see. This is the very thing I have promoted for all 30 years of my practice and on this site. But I digress. Back to the 56 year old.
Not to sound creepy, but I could make and sustain a busy orthopaedic practice by seeing only women in their fifties and sixties. Why? Around 45 and increasingly thereafter is when the cumulative effects of long standing and increasing isolated gastrocnemius contractures start to become noticeable and symptomatic in many forms, more in women than men in general. And 56 seems to be the perfect age.
The two most common problems I see in the 56 year old female, without question, are second MTP synovitis and midfoot arthritis. Other problems resulting from an isolated gastrocnemius contracture and general start up pain and stiffness, plantar fasciitis, Sever’s disease, shin splints, posterior tibialis tendon rupture (PTTR) acquired flatfoot deformity, second MTP synovitis which leads to plantar plate rupture and ultimately a hammer toe, Morton’s neuroma, insertional Achilles tendinosis/Haglund’s deformity, Achilles tendinitis, musculotendinous Achilles ruptures, calf cramps at night/Charley horse, anterior ankle spurs, Jones/Fifth MT stress fracture, diabetic Charcot anthropathy, diabetic malperforans ulcer formation, and many metatarsal stress fractures.
Here is the problem. People, including the majority of my doctor colleagues, either don’t know or don’t believe, even though the evidence is there and is solid. It is too bad because the secondary foot or ankle problem naturally becomes the focus of treatment, which might make a person feel somewhat better, but it will not fix the primary problem, the isolated gastrocnemius contracture. Ever wonder why plantar fasciitis seems to just linger on or mysteriously returns when you have “done everything”?
Let me be clear on the next point: WE ARE TREATING THE WRONG THING. And it is wasting loads of money and time for all you out there suffering.
“WE ARE TREATING THE WRONG THING”
On a final note, of my few colleagues who get that the isolated gastrocnemius contracture is the problem, want to guess what their solution is? Surgery to lengthen the Achilles or the gastrocnemius of course. Don’t get me wrong, I surgically lengthen the gastrocnemius as well, but only after clear cut failure of dedicated daily gastrocnemius stretching, which works just fine most of the time.
Why would somebody take on the expense and obvious risk of any surgery when it can be avoided in most cases. All it takes is ONE simple exercise, daily calf stretching and some patience.
This is for all you lovely 56 year olds. I love ya. Now stretch!