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Morton’s Neuroma-Revised Rewound Rebuffed Revisited

Thank you all so much for your comments and support. I have received a lot of feedback and fantastic questions about Morton’s neuromas (MN) and your problems with diagnosis and treatment of such. This area of the foot can indeed be terrifically confusing and difficult to diagnose. I want to help you all as much as I can with this conundrum, and I would love to answer each and every one of you individually, but I just can’t and shouldn’t in this setting. As always refer to AOFAS for specific help.

If you have been labeled with the diagnosis of a Morton’s neuroma and various treatments are not working so well, maybe you don’t have a Morton’s neuroma.


The MN diagnosis is made way too often. Why? Here are some misconceptions that surround the dreaded Morton’s neuroma and lead us astray:

  • MN’s are really common. Actually they are not common, especially a 2nd web space MN (15%). Even 3rd web space MN are not common. If your doc is indicating a 2nd web space MN, question it and consider the much more common 2nd MTP synovitis (inflammation of the central ball joint). If they are thinking 1st or 4th web space, RUN.
  • MN diagnosis is SEXY. We docs just got to make that diagnosis. “You have a Morton’s neuroma”. It has teeth. It sounds so definitive and sure. It is like a golf ball set up on a tee just waiting to be shanked.
  • MN’s are easy to diagnose. Actually, they are not easy to diagnose. I have done this for 27 years and now more than ever, I am now even more cautious and I respect making this diagnosis ore than ever. It is actually a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that I rule out the other possibilities to the best of my ability before making the call of a MN. Too many good docs jump right to this diagnosis. It has to be the last diagnosis, and even then I am often not as sure as I would like to be normally.
  • “You have a Mulder’s click”. This is a physical finding that is rarely helpful, but boy, do we really like it.
  • The MRI and more recently, ultrasound have not helped matters either. In fact, those who rely on these tests are trying to increasingly make a claim regarding their diagnostic prowess, which is not true. Stick to old fashion history and exam.
  • MN may be all your doctor knows.

Basically, central forefoot (2nd, 3rd, 4th metatarsal head region, not 1st or 5th) pain that starts in an otherwise normal foot can be divvied up into four basic diagnoses the great majority of the time. There are several more diagnoses that are uncommon and frankly, outliers that are not discussed here such as Freiberg’s infraction, inflammatory arthritis (rheumatoid), etc. Here are the names and the diagnostic criteria, according to the AO. Keep in mind that the majority of these can be diagnosed by history alone and an MRI or an ultra sound is generally not needed in any of these. Waste of time and money. If your doc is quick to say they need an MRI  to make the diagnosis consider another route. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

Exam is important, but only to support and confirm the history. By the way, no matter what you think or hear, none of these ever have a history of actual causative acute trauma. If you have a history of trauma and you have one of these I would say True-True-Unrelated.

Finally I am not discussing treatment. The treatment of each of these is clearcut as long as one is confident in the diagnosis, which what this is about.

Intractable plantar keratosis (IPK) or plantar corn or callus

  • Generally older, 50 yo plus, but can be any adult
  • Pain is on the bottom
  • Insidious slow onset, present for some time
  • Visible seed, small tight callus that is exquisitely tender to touch.
  • No swelling
  • You would have to be brain dead to miss this one.
  • Pain only with weight bearing
  • Worse on barefoot, better in shoes
  • When it comes to trauma, this one could be the exception. If there is bonafide past or remote trauma to your foot/metatarsal or previous surgery that leads you to have a residual unevenness to the weight bearing surface of your metatarsals, then you could develop an IPK form that.
  • X-rays negative
  • Can be confused with a plantar wart.

Metatarsal neck stress fracture


  • Ages
    • Military recruits, boot camp, “march fracture”
    • Distance runners, any age, training error
    • 50+ female>>male
  • Recent rapid onset
  • Recent rise in activity level, especially number of steps! Normal activity to many more steps per day, vacation, new exercise program, etc. Or lower activity as in being down from prolonged inactivity, i.e.illness, heading back to your normal activity level. Jumping out of the back of a pick up truck and breaking your metatarsal is an acute fracture, not a stress fracture, and is different.
  • Pain on top of foot
  • Swelling top of foot
  • Usually 2nd metatarsal, next to big toe metatarsal
  • Pain with weight bearing, with or with out shoes
  • X-rays negative in first 21 days, then new reparative bone formation is seen and sometimes the fracture is seen.

Morton’s neuroma

  • Adults, peak age 40’s thru 50’s.
  • Insidious onset, often years.
  • Unlike all the others, at first and often even later, the location of the pain can be vague; can’t pinpoint. Can be frustrating for patient and doctor alike. However, knowing this can ultimately be helpful if used correctly.
  • Pain mostly on bottom.
  • Can take a while to get started with standing/walking.
  • Worse in confining shoes, better in sandals or barefoot.
  • NO SWELLING…………..EVER. Whoops, caps lock on again.
  • Can feel swollen however. Numbness can feel like swelling. Remember the last time you got home from the dentist and you looked in the mirror because you were sure that your tongue was hanging out of your mouth only to find out all was well. I rest my case.
  • There can be a sensation of actual, perceptible numbness between the two affected toe which border the neuroma. This sensation or finding by your doc is extremely variable and unreliable. It’s presence or absence really means nothing. I ignore it basically except to support my other findings.
  • Mulder’s click is a useless finding. It’s absence means nothing. While I do dismiss it, a Mulder’s click may be supportive if when performed it exactly recreates your pain.
  • 3rd web…85-90%, 2nd web 10-15%, 1st or 4th web…….not.
  • These are two things that get my attention and often have meaning, but only supportive with other findings and history:
    • feeling of folded sock bottom of foot
    • urge to take off shoes and rub foot. Does not matter whether you actually ever do it, it is just the urge part.

Second MTP synovitis (AKA, capsulitis)


  • Majority in specific demographic,  55 +/- yo female
  • Not mentioned as differential diagnosis on Mayo or WebMD sites, but capsulitis is right there on Wikipedia.
  • By and far the most common of these four diagnoses
  • Primarily 2nd metatarsal. Infrequently the 3rd.
  • Insidious onset, few days to weeks.
  • Swelling top and bottom often, but not always.
  • Painful “lump” or “rock” under ball of foot. Pain on bottom.
  • Worse on hard floor barefoot, better on carpet or cushioned shoes.
  • Sometimes there is the perception of some form of trauma, but any trauma is just the “straw that broke the camels back” phenomenon. For instance dancing at a wedding in heels to get it started. But here is something you MUST know; it was going to start eventually anyway because it is a result of:
    • mostly these occur as a result of calves that are too tight which places more pressure on the forefoot/metatarsal heads. This represents a more recent change and why this is happening now and not before.
    • in a very small part due to the anatomy because the 2nd metatarsal is the most prominent in almost all of us. This has been your anatomy forever and has not changed. Your doctor might refer to your 2nd metatarsal that is “too long”, but it has been that length all your life. Seriously, it isn’t as if your metatarsal magically grew longer recently. Now, refer back to calves.
    • Transfer metatarsalgia secondary to a bunion. Often blamed, but the calves that are too tight are the larger reason this is going on at this point in your life.
  • When this problem is left untreated, eventually a hammertoe will develop if the swelling is allowed to persist. Hey, here is a novel idea. The great majority of isolated 2nd and/or 3rd hammertoes result from MTP synovitis which comes from calves that are too tight, which is almost completely preventable as long as you stretch your calves.
  • Often the inflammation from the 2nd MTP synovitis can irritate the adjacent 2nd web space nerve causing neuritis, which is a secondary thing and not a Morton’s neuroma.


If you are reading this, chances are you fit in one of these four groups. Certainly you’ve gotten loads of information from the stranger on the bus next to you, or your nosey neighbor (everybody is an expert), or from the internet, or even your doctor. Again, the mere fact that you are reading this means things probably aren’t going so well. No matter what you have heard from these sources statistically your problem is second MTP synovitis, and not a Morton’s neuroma.

IPK, seed callus under second metatarsal head

AP radiograph right foot                              2nd metatarsal stress fracture, oldest with      mature fracture callus; 4th metatarsal stress fracture, newer with early maturing fracture callus; 3rd metatarsal stress fracture,   newest with minimal fracture callus

3rd web space Morton’s neuroma, plantar or bottom view

3rd web space Morton’s neuroma, dorsal or top view

Pedobarograph, 2nd metatarsal overload

2nd hammertoe