Physical Therapist's Guide to Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome
Tarsal tunnel syndrome (TTS) is a condition that develops when a nerve within the tarsal tunnel of the inner ankle is compressed. TTS can lead to alterations in sensation and movement of the foot, ankle, and lower leg, and/or pain. It is often associated with conditions causing increased compression or swelling in the lower leg. Physical therapists help people experiencing TTS to relieve their pain and restore their normal function.
What is Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome
Often described as the carpal tunnel syndrome of the lower extremity, tarsal tunnel syndrome is a condition that results from the compression of the posterior tibial nerve as it runs through the tarsal tunnel (a structure made up of bone and tissue (retinaculum) on the inside of the ankle). As it passes through the tarsal tunnel, the tibial nerve divides into 3 branches that provide sensation for the heel and bottom of the foot, and aid in the foot's function. When this structure becomes compressed, symptoms, such as pain, numbness, and/or tingling may occur and radiate into the lower leg, foot, and toes. Individuals may also experience muscle weakness in the area.
How Does it Feel?
The most common symptoms of TTS result from irritation of the tibial nerve and its branches. People with TTS may experience:
- Pain, numbness, or tingling in the foot or ankle, which may radiate into the lower leg, foot, and toes
- Weakness in the muscles of the lower leg and foot
- Weakness of the big toe
- Foot swelling
- Symptoms that increase with prolonged standing or walking
- Symptoms that decrease with rest
- Altered temperatures of the foot and ankle
- Pain that disrupts sleep
How Is It Diagnosed?
There are several tests that can help a clinician determine if TTS is present. Your physical therapist and/or physician will first take a comprehensive health history, and inquire about your current symptoms. Then your physical therapist may conduct tests, such as:
- Gently tapping over the posterior tibial nerve in an attempt to reproduce your symptoms.
- Tensing of the posterior tibial nerve, a maneuver that looks and feels like a "stretch," in an attempt to reproduce your symptoms.
- Conducting a nerve condition study—a diagnostic test to determine the speed at which a nerve conducts information.
- Ruling out other conditions, such as plantarfasciitis (inflammation of the tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot).
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Physical therapists play a vital role in helping people experiencing TTS to improve and maintain their daily function and activities. Your physical therapist will work with you to develop a treatment plan to help address your specific needs and goals.
Because the signs and symptoms of TTS can vary, the approach to care will also vary. Your physical therapist may provide the following recommendations and care:
Nerve Gliding Activities. Gentle exercises that move and "glide" the nerves may help reduce symptoms and improve function.
Muscle Strengthening Exercises. Strengthening activities for any muscles affected by TTS, such as the tibialis posterior muscle in the back of your lower leg.
Balance and Coordination Activities. Work to improve your balance and coordination, which are often affected by TTS.
Orthotics/Taping/Bracing. Apply ankle taping, a custom orthotic, or bracing to position the foot to decrease stress on the posterior tibial nerve.
As with many conditions, education is key. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of TTS, and learning to recognize early signs and symptoms of stress may help you better manage the condition.
Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?
Although there are no proven strategies for preventing TTS, there are ways to minimize stress to the foot and ankle, such as choosing appropriate footwear, wearing custom orthotics, minimizing the amount of time spent standing on hard surfaces, and improving and maintaining strength in the muscles of your legs, ankles, and feet. These strategies can be discussed further with your physical therapist.
In addition, early detection of the signs and symptoms of TTS will help you and your medical providers begin appropriate management of the condition, which may enhance your long-term well-being.
Real Life Experiences
Kim is a 46-year-old woman who works on an automobile assembly line. Her job involves standing on hard surfaces for prolonged periods of time. Kim recently noticed an onset of pain in her inner ankle after working a few hours, as well as an occasional shooting pain in her big toe. Now, her pain gets progressively worse throughout the day, and often interrupts her sleep. She is afraid of losing her job if she mentions her symptoms to her boss, and really can't afford to miss work. Kim decides to call her physical therapist.
Kim's physical therapist asks about her medical history, and learns that Kim has been diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They discuss Kim’s current symptoms.
He examines Kim’s ankle motion and strength, and gently performs procedures to provoke her symptoms. He also observes how she walks, and assesses her balance. Based on these signs and symptoms, he diagnoses tarsal tunnel syndrome.
Over the next several weeks, Kim works with her physical therapist to reduce her pain and improve her function. Her treatments include:
- Application of a custom orthotic to better support her foot/ankle.
- Nerve-gliding activities to improve the mobility of the posterior tibial nerve.
- Balance exercises.
- Manual therapy to ease her pain and improve her ankle mobility.
- Strengthening exercises for her affected muscles.
- Education about modifying her work positioning and activities.
After 4 weeks of physical therapy, Kim reports a significant reduction in her symptoms. She says she no longer fears going to work, and believes that she has taken control of her current situation. She continues to perform the home-based exercises her physical therapist taught her, and is amazed at how comfortable her feet feel throughout the workday—in her new shoes with custom orthotic inserts.
This story highlights an individualized experience of TTS. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific needs.
What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?
All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat conditions, such as TTS. However, when seeking a provider, you may want to consider:
- A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist, or who has completed a residency or fellowship in physical therapy. This therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.
- A physical therapist who is well-versed in the treatment of TTS or other neuropathic disorders.
You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.
General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):
- Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.
- When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people with painful conditions
- During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible. Keeping a journal highlighting when you experience pain will help the physical therapist identify the best way of approaching care.
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions, and also prepare them for a visit with their health care provider.
The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence for the treatment of Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.
Alshama AM, Souvlis T, Coppieters MW. A review of plantar heel pain of neural origin: differential diagnosis and management. Man Ther. 2008;13(2):103–111. Article Summary on PubMed.
Kavlak Y, Uygur F. Effects of nerve mobilization exercise as an adjunct to the conservative treatment for patients with tarsal tunnel syndrome. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2011;34(7):441–448. Article Summary on PubMed.
*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.
Acknowledgements: Joseph Brence, PT, DPT, FAAOMPT, COMT, DAC. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.
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