There are four stages of posterior tibial tendon dysfunction. In the first stage the posterior tibial tendon is inflamed but has normal strength. There is little to no change in the arch of the foot. In stage two the tendon is partially torn or shows degenerative changes and as a result loses strength. There is considerable flattening of the arch without arthritic changes in the foot. Stage three results when the posterior tibial tendon is torn and not functioning. As a result the arch is completely collapsed with arthritic changes in the foot. Stage four is identical to stage three except that the ankle joint also becomes arthritic.
The posterior tibial tendon, which connects the bones inside the foot to the calf, is responsible for supporting the foot during movement and holding up the arch. Gradual stretching and tearing of the posterior tibial tendon can cause failure of the ligaments in the arch. Without support, the bones in the feet fall out of normal position, rolling the foot inward. The foot’s arch will collapse completely over time, resulting in adult acquired flatfoot. The ligaments and tendons holding up the arch can lose elasticity and strength as a result of aging. Obesity, diabetes, and hypertension can increase the risk of developing this condition. Adult acquired flatfoot is seen more often in women than in men and in those 40 or older.
Patients often experience pain and/or deformity at the ankle or hindfoot. When the posterior tibial tendon does not work properly, a number of changes can occur to the foot and ankle. In the earlier stages, symptoms often include pain and tenderness along the posterior tibial tendon behind the inside of the ankle. As the tendon progressively fails, deformity of the foot and ankle may occur. This deformity can include progressive flattening of the arch, shifting of the heel so that it no longer is aligned underneath the rest of the leg, rotation and deformity of the forefoot, tightening of the heel cord, development of arthritis, and deformity of the ankle joint. At certain stages of this disorder, pain may shift from the inside to the outside aspect of the ankle as the heel shifts outward and structures are pinched laterally.
Diagnostic testing is often used to diagnose the condition and help determine the stage of the disease. The most common test done in the office setting are weightbearing X-rays of the foot and ankle. These assess joint alignment and osteoarthritis. If tendon tearing or rupture is suspected, the gold standard test would be MRI. The MRI is used to check the tendon, surrounding ligament structures and the midfoot and hindfoot joints. An MRI is essential if surgery is being considered.
Non surgical Treatment
Nonoperative treatment of posterior tibial tendon dysfunction can be successful with the Arizona AFO brace, particularly when treatment is initiated in the early stages of the disease. This mandates that the orthopedist has a high index of suspicion when evaluating patients to make an accurate diagnosis. Although there is a role for surgical management of acquired flat feet, a well-fitted, custom-molded leather and polypropylene orthosis can be effective at relieving symptoms and either obviating or delaying any surgical intervention. In today’s climate of patient satisfaction directed health care, a less invasive treatment modality that relieves pain may prove to be more valuable than similar pain relief that is obtained after surgery. Questions regarding the long-term results of bracing remain unanswered. Future studies are needed to determine if disease progression and arthrosis occur despite symptomatic relief with a brace. Furthermore, age- and disease stage-matched control groups who are randomized to undergo surgery or bracing are necessary to compare these different treatment modalities.
Good to excellent results for more than 80% of patients have been reported at five years’ follow up for the surgical interventions recommended below. However, the postoperative recovery is a lengthy process, and most surgical procedures require patients to wear a plaster cast for two to three months. Although many patients report that their function is well improved by six months, in our experience a year is required to recover truly and gain full functional improvement after the surgery. Clearly, some patients are not candidates for such major reconstructive surgery.