Calf Stretching: It’s the AO Way or the Highway (There Are No Back Roads)

I know I consistently promote calf stretching to you all, like here, and here, and even here, but thanks to many of your questions, I realized I have never told you exactly how to do it right: my way.

True, it is a simple concept itself, but it’s not just “any old” calf stretching.

I am not talking about calf stretching before you run. I am not talking about calf stretching after you use the weights at the gym (or however you choose to exercise).

What I am talking about is calf stretching that is done right – everyday – and that is separate from exercise, especially before.

What you see described here is what is proven to be, over time, effective in changing the muscle-tendon units so that our muscles will eventually (patience, people!) return to their optimal (or “normal”) length. Yes, as you age many of your muscles get tighter, especially your calves. You know this because you just get stiffer, but it does not have to be that way.

So you say, “AO, of course I want results. So tell me how!”


…And that is what I have heard more and more lately. And, it is a fair request, which is why I’m sharing that now.

The Skinny on Stretching: The Stuff That Really Counts

Stretching the right way. It’s like something we tell our kids: “There’s no point in doing it if you aren’t going to do it right.” You can stretch off a step in order to get the kind of calf stretch you are really after – which is an isolated and passive stretch of the calf. The best kind!

The biggest, or the most common, error I see in stretching?

Well, besides just not doing it or people ignoring me when I tell them to do it separate from any training or workout session, to start, take a look at where you are making contact. The foot should contact the step against the arch of your foot, not the ball. Believe it or not, the best stretch is obtained this way.

In the past, people have found success with an aerobics step, which works well since it is about 8 inches tall or so. It also has a rounded edge. Do a quick Google search if you need to see one.

If you perform the stretching on stairs, as many do, use the bottom stair and hold onto the railing for support. Athletic shoes with traction seem to work best.

Then slowly relax your ankles, and let your heels go downward. Learning this might take more effort and a little more time than you might think to get it just right. Remember the contact point on the step is your arch, not the balls of your feet. This point can not be over emphasized. Now you should be feeling a pulling (or a tightness) in your upper calf muscle – which is what we want. You should be feeling this stretch high in your calf, just below your knee.

AO_wrong way

final _aocorrect

Here’s what else to consider.

Length of time you do it…Every. Day.
Through years of tinkering and observation, I have determined that 9 minutes a day is the right number. It’s best to do it 3 minutes, 3 times per day. You can cluster your stretching like sets. In other words, do a 3 minute stretch, go away for a few minutes (brush your teeth, etc.), then do your next 3 minute stretch, go away for a bit, and then complete your final, 3 minutes, and you are done for the day. It’s easy, it’s done and you are on to the next thing. Less does not seem to work for people, and more is a waste.

How many weeks, or months should you stretch everyday. How long should you keep this up?
Are you going to stop after just a week or two? Again, by overall time span, what I mean is how many weeks or months are spent doing your stretching, each and every day. One of the biggest mistakes I see is that people either want an overnight change, or they “give up” when the pain goes away.

The one “downside” of calf stretching? It takes time. I’ll tell you again: you have to be consistent. Fortunately, but maybe not in your particular case, the problems we are solving are manageable, until the stretching finally does its job. Good things most often do not came fast. Be patient.

This will work, just be consistent and do it everyday. Moderate your stretching intensity to feel it high in your calf. Go easy for a week or so and break in slow.

Download this Guide to see the rest of this program, and share it with your friends and family…Unless you want them to be in pain? (Actually, for prevention purposes, this particular stretch would be good for everyone to do, with or without pain or foot problems.) You can call it the AO way, no kidding!

“So If We Do the Stretching The Right Way…When Do We Start to Get Relief?”

I see people take 2 weeks, to as much as 6 months for their calf stretching to “undo” the powerful, damaging effects that the isolated gastrocnemius contracture has exerted on their foot and ankle. Give it time and the results are most often stunning!

Where will you fall on the spectrum of 2 weeks to 6 months – that is, the time frame needed to resolve your tight calves? That’s one of many things I don’t know for sure! But, one thing I do know, if you don’t stretch you will never know now will you?

Stay healthy my friends,

AO

Albert Pujols, Looking in All the wrong Places

Al, Al, Al…it is time to stop listening to your trainers, your team doc, and aunt Bessie and do the right thing.

Via Wikipedia

Via Wikipedia

Here is a call to action to everyone in AngryLand. Somebody please get the word to Big Al and many more big leaguers who have plantar fasciitis, that calf stretching everyday is the answer. Pujols was on the IR for plantar fasciitis last season and I am certain stretching was not part of his solution. Okay, maybe he did just a little bit.

Now he is out with what sounds very much like second MTP synovitis. These are kissing cousins and both are a result from the exact same common denominator, the isolated gastrocnemius contracture. The first problem, plantar fasciitis was not really fixed, just palliated and he got better because they treated the usual and the obvious thing, his heel. This is the rule not the exception. Now with the underlying problem, the isolated gastrocnemius contracture, still present and UNTREATED, he has developed a predictable second MTP synovitis. Small world. Who would have guessed. Well, actually most would not, especially those treating him.

What is really cool is most of you Angry followers know… More on Albert later.

This brings me to one of the many reasons these sort of problems are misdiagnosed so often especially for us common folk.

This article uses an incorrect terminology found all too common: injury.

When it comes to the majority of foot and ankle issues we see please don’t just nilly willy call them “injuries” unless of course they really are an injury. They are acquired inflammatory disorders of mechanical imbalance, not injuries, end of discussion. An actual injury is when you have a split second, acute force (blunt force, twisting, bending, etc.) applied to a body part and you go down in a heap yelling mother fu@#er. Then you limp off, swell, hurt some more and go to the doctor or your trainer.

I see so many patients weekly who have seen one or more docs with a history of an injury of some sort. I will have them describe the “injury” and what I usually get, about 75% of the time, is a very different story. I was playing in a soccer game, or at football practice, or walking in the mall and I injured my foot (or ankle). Then I ask “So, when exactly did the injury occur? How much swelling did you have? Did they have to carry you off the field?” Of course the answer is no. They say “I just started to have some pain. I actually played the rest of the game.” Or something like that.

These are not injuries! But that is how almost every patient describes the origin of their presenting problem. Why? Well it is pretty obvious, musculoskeletal complaints can only result from injuries, right? Wrong.

…musculoskeletal complaints can only result from injuries, right? Wrong.

These “injuries” are actually acquired inflammatory disorders of mechanical imbalance as I said above. Something remote and likely not detectable is out of whack, imbalanced, and something else takes the brunt. This is way more common than one would think, and probably most true in the foot and ankle. And the likely culprit is the isolated gastrocnemius contracture, at least in the foot and ankle.

The reason their problem is misdiagnosed is because the doctor believes them when they say it was an injury and he/she likely too busy to ask the critical questions. Thus starts a wild goose chase looking for the wrong thing because they are on the wrong side of the algorithm. Trust me when I say that acute, true injuries are on one side of the algorithm and imbalance inflammatory problems are on the other side. They are worlds apart.

Foot and ankle complaint

So Mr. Pujols, please get over to the other to the correct side of the algorithm and stop treating an “injury” if you want to get better. Start stretching your calves and fix your problem.

One More Thing: Trauma vs. Non-Trauma Causation

About twenty years ago I was asked to see an acquaintance’s 16 year-old niece for a knee “injury” incurred running track (back when I saw knees occasionally). She had seen another orthopaedic surgeon who obviously heard the word “injury” and took it at face value.

He examined her and determined that she had a medial collateral ligament partial tear and no X-ray was obtained. However there was never an injury, it just started one day at track practice along with swelling. This is the history I obtained determining this was indeed not an injury. Thus I was now on the correct side of the algorithm, and I suspected some sort of tumor knowing this is the age and the typical story… An X-ray was obtained and a lytic lesion (bone tumor) was obvious, and she was referred to M.D Anderson and was successfully treated by the experts.

Stay healthy my friends,

AO

Hammer Toe and Your Pain

hammer toe question

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.

I think you get it.

Stay healthy my friends,

AO

Plantar plate repairs and the pre-dislocation syndrome: what the f$@% (Part 2)

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.

Stay healthy my friends,

AO

Plantar plate repairs & the pre-dislocation syndrome: what the f$@% (Part 1)

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.

angry orthopod upload Plantar Plate Repairs

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.”

Angry Orthopod & pre-dislocation syndrome

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.

Stay tuned.

Stay healthy my friends,

AO

Why I Don’t Promote Plantar Fascia Stretching- (Part 2)

Click here to see what we discussed in Part 1.

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.

F1.large

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.”

  1. Why does wearing higher heels (yes, I said higher, not high) like Dansko’s or mild wedges, so often give temporary relief?  Joanie-Black-Full-GrainGo 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. windlass-foot-designThis 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.
  2. 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. Plantar_Fasciitis11 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.

 

-AO