Since my early teens, I’ve had the unfortunate challenge of navigating the world with flat feet. Legend has it that my arches disappeared around the same time I started taking tap and ballet lessons, but to be honest, I can’t pinpoint the exact time my achy feet transformed to their present state. And though I’ve been told countless times to run, not walk, to a podiatrist, it’s an item on my to-do list that has been put off for years.
Now, as time seems to travel at warp speed and my body’s bounce-back isn’t as swift as it used to be, I’m taking my foot pain seriously and looking for sweet, sweet relief. If you too have flat-as-a-pancake-foot syndrome, ahead is everything you need to know about this common condition, including the causes and how to eliminate discomfort.
According to celebrity athlete podiatrist Joan Oloff, DPM, the medical term for flat feet is pes plano valgus, which describes the position of the foot in anatomic terms. The causes of foot deformities fall into two main categories: congenital (a.k.a. you were born with it) and acquired (a.k.a. it develops over time).
“Sometimes babies are born with a bridging between two major bones in the back of the foot, under the ankle. This is a common cause for early congenital flat foot deformities,” she says. “Another type of congenital flat foot is where the talus bone, which sits right under the ankle, is malpositioned. It can be dislocated from the bone in front of it, causing a severe congenital flat foot at birth. Fortunately, these are rare.”
Acquired flat feet usually start in childhood, typically in those with naturally tight muscles in the back of the leg or those who walked on their toes as toddlers. This causes the foot to to pronate, or flatten out. These may be the toddlers who tend to walk on their toes. The tight muscles cause the foot to pronate, or flatten out.
Oloff adds that another common cause of acquired flat foot is a dysfunction of the posterior tibial tendon, which is basically a fancy phrase for the tendons that attach the bones inside your foot to the calf muscle. “This is why people may notice a ‘sudden’ worsening of their flat feet. The tendon is overworked and simply gives out. Occasionally, it will actually rupture,” she says.
Over time, this can also have a negative impact on your posture, as well as the health of your knees, hips and back if you don’t take precaution.
Exercises for Discomfort
Simple stretching exercises are a great place to start, and the sooner you start, the more effective they can be. In rare cases, the Achilles tendon can become so tight that it has to be lengthened surgically. So get moving!
“Because tight muscles are at the root of the problem, daily stretching exercises are important to do. There are several good ways to do this. I even have my patients stretch before they get out of bed in the morning,” says Oloff. “All of the muscles in the back of the leg are involved. These are called the posterior chain and include the Achilles tendon, gastrocnemius muscle and hamstrings.”
A simple but effective method you can try at home is outlining the letters of the alphabet with your toes. Picking up marbles also strengthens these muscles! And if you want a more formal, consistent solution, yoga postures can also provide longer-term relief.
Products for Discomfort
In addition to regular stretching, custom orthotics can also be helpful, though most aren’t the most fashion-forward. For this reason, Oloff developed a line of stylish shoes (heels included) with orthotics built into the insole of each pair, though they’re not technically “medical” shoes.
“I have been able to change the minds of many shoe artisans who have, up until now, not taken how a woman’s foot is shaped into consideration,” she says. “What I am most proud of is that my collection is designed keeping on-trend styles in mind but feel like comfort footwear.”
Outside of this convenient collection, you should wear athletic and walking shoes that are constructed with removable insoles. With this feature, there’s room for orthotics to be inserted, if that’s what a podiatrist recommends you use. This type of technology, according to Oloff, “allows the foot to be stable and helps to prevent fatigue in the muscles, which is why the foot aches at the end of the day.”