Adult-acquired flatfoot (AAF) is the term used to describe the progressive deformity of the foot and ankle that, in its later stages, results in collapsed and badly deformed feet. Although the condition has been described and written about since the 1980s, AAF is not a widely used acronym within the O&P community-even though orthotists and pedorthists easily recognize the signs of the condition because they treat them on an almost daily basis. AAF is caused by a loss of the dynamic and static support structures of the medial longitudinal arch, resulting in an incrementally worsening planovalgus deformity associated with posterior tibial (PT) tendinitis. Over the past 30 years, researchers have attempted to understand and explain the gradual yet significant deterioration that can occur in foot structure, which ultimately leads to painful and debilitating conditions-a progression that is currently classified into four stages. What begins as a predisposition to flatfoot can progress to a collapsed arch, and then to the more severe posterior tibial tendon dysfunction (PTTD). Left untreated, the PT tendon can rupture, and the patient may then require a rigid AFO or an arthrodesis fixation surgery to stabilize the foot in order to remain capable of walking pain free.
A person with flat feet has greater load placed on the posterior tibial tendon which is the main tendon unit supporting up the arch of the foot. Throughout life, aging leads to decreased strength of muscles, tendons and ligaments. The blood supply diminishes to tendons with aging as arteries narrow. Heavier, obese patients have more weight on the arch and have greater narrowing of arteries due to atherosclerosis. In some people, the posterior tibial tendon finally gives out or tears. This is not a sudden event in most cases. Rather, it is a slow, gradual stretching followed by inflammation and degeneration of the tendon. Once the posterior tibial tendon stretches, the ligaments of the arch stretch and tear. The bones of the arch then move out of position with body weight pressing down from above. The foot rotates inward at the ankle in a movement called pronation. The arch appears collapsed, and the heel bone is tilted to the inside. The deformity can progress until the foot literally dislocates outward from under the ankle joint.
Depending on the cause of the flatfoot, a patient may experience one or more of the different symptoms here. Pain along the course of the posterior tibial tendon which lies on the inside of the foot and ankle. This can be associated with swelling on the inside of the ankle. Pain that is worse with activity. High intensity or impact activities, such as running, can be very difficult. Some patients can have difficulty walking or even standing for long periods of time. When the foot collapses, the heel bone may shift position and put pressure on the outside ankle bone (fibula). This can cause pain on the outside of the ankle. Arthritis in the heel also causes this same type of pain. Patients with an old injury or arthritis in the middle of the foot can have painful, bony bumps on the top and inside of the foot. These make shoewear very difficult. Occasionally, the bony spurs are so large that they pinch the nerves which can result in numbness and tingling on the top of the foot and into the toes. Diabetics may only notice swelling or a large bump on the bottom of the foot. Because their sensation is affected, people with diabetes may not have any pain. The large bump can cause skin problems and an ulcer (a sore that does not heal) may develop if proper diabetic shoewear is not used.
Observe forefoot to hindfoot alignment. Do this with the patient sitting and the heel in neutral, and also with the patient standing. I like to put blocks under the forefoot with the heel in neutral to see how much forefoot correction is necessary to help hold the hindfoot position. One last note is to check all joints for stiffness. In cases of prolonged PTTD or coalition, rigid deformity is present and one must carefully check the joints of the midfoot and hindfoot for stiffness and arthritis in the surgical pre-planning.
Non surgical Treatment
The following is a summary of conservative treatments for acquired flatfoot. Stage 1, NSAIDs and short-leg walking cast or walker boot for 6-8 weeks; full-length semirigid custom molded orthosis, physical therapy. Stage 2, UCBL orthosis or short articulated ankle orthosis. Stage 3, Molded AFO, double-upright brace, or patellar tendon-bearing brace. Stage 4, Molded AFO, double-upright brace, or patellar tendon-bearing brace.
If conservative treatment fails surgical intervention is offered. For a Stage 1 deformity a posterior tibial tendon tenosynovectomy (debridement of the tendon) or primary repair may be indicated. For Stage 2 a combination of Achilles lengthening with bone cuts, calcaneal osteotomies, and tendon transfers is common. Stage 2 flexible PTTD is the most common stage patients present with for treatment. In Stage 3 or 4 PTTD isolated fusions, locking two or more joints together, maybe indicated. All treatment is dependent on the stage and severity at presentation with the goals and activity levels of the patient in mind. Treatment is customized to the individual patient needs.