Put Some “Spring” in your Step

Gregory G. Caronis, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Advocate Medical Group Orthopedics, shared that with the long-awaited, warmer days of spring approaching, don’t let all of the activities you looked forward to all winter get spoiled by a problem that many people face — aching feet and ankles. It’s hard to be active and healthy when pain is a constant.

With a board-certified specialty in disorders of the foot and ankle, I see many patients who have lived with years of discomfort that plagues both recreational and daily activities. They become more sedentary, postponing important physical activities that have both physical and psychological benefit. Many of these conditions can be treated medically with simple, conservative measures. Others have surgical solutions that can ultimately yield an enhanced quality of life. Orthopedic surgeons like me who complete post-residency education and training through a fellowship in disorders of the foot and ankle can address both the medical and surgical causes of these painful conditions.

It Feels Like there’s an Icepick in my Heel: This common complaint presents to my office several times each week, if not daily. This patient complains of intense pain at the undersurface of the heel, usually associated with extreme stiffness in the morning and after extended period of sitting. We call this “start-up” pain, and it is a hallmark of a condition called plantar fasciitis. The plantar fascia is a tendon sheath that runs along the undersurface of the foot. It is commonly associated with inflexibility of the Achilles tendon and flat arches. Sometimes increased activity will bring on a flare — sometimes it occurs with no apparent reason. While this condition is quite painful and inconvenient, it usually resolves over time with a course of ice, rest, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and physical therapy. Stretching the heel cord, or Achilles, is the mainstay of treatment. Cushioned gel heel cups provide considerable relief and cortisone injections are sometimes utilized if the condition persists for several months, despite treatment. Sugery is reserved for refractory cases — in nearly 20 years of practice, I’ve operated on only a handful of patients.

My Achilles is so Tight — it Might Tear: The largest tendon in the body, the Achilles tendon is a common site of inflammation. It connects the muscles in your lower leg to the heel bone, and is commonly aggravated by athletic activity — sometimes the culprit is overuse, but degenerative changes can also play a role. Patients hobble into my office with pain and swelling in the base of their heel and a concern about rupturing the tendon due to pain and tightness. They point to the back of the heel as being the source of their trouble, and there is often a painful “bump.” Patients complain of pain in the back of the heel with physical activity and an overall tightness in the Achilles. Tightness in the heel cords or Achilles plays a significant role — tightness can be associated with flatter arches or the overall loss in flexibility that tends to occur naturally as we age. Conservative measures like ice, anti-inflammatory medications and, particularly, stretching can be helpful in alleviating symptoms. The condition can become chronic, and a period of immobilization in a walking boot can sometimes calm the tendon to the point that physical therapy is more effective. I sometimes operate for treatment of prolonged cases that fail to respond to these other treatments.

My Big Toe is Killing Me: Patients frequently come to see me when pain at the base of the great toe causes walking or athletic activity to be painful. Arthritis at the joint of great toe or first metatarsal phalangeal joint is the most common site of arthritis in the foot. The bones of the foot and great toe are generally covered with a smooth cartilaginous surface. Chronic stress on the joint from certain anatomy of the foot that places excessive force on the joint or injury from running or other sports can damage the cartilage — often with the development of painful, bony spurs at the top of the joint and roughening of the two articular surfaces. The toe becomes inflexible, and every step is associated with pain. I frequently recommend simple measures like avoiding high heels and purchasing shoes with a wider toe box can be helpful. Ice and anti-inflammatory medication can reduce symptoms. Patients tend to be more comfortable in a shoe with a rigid sole. If symptoms persist, surgery is an option. If the degeneration is not particularly severe, a more minimal surgery can be done to remove the offending bone spurs. In advanced cases, I perform a fusion to encourage the two surfaces to grow together. Patients usually have fairly limited ROM at that point, and they trade a minimal increase in stiffness with pain relief as the two rough, arthritic surfaces are no longer rubbing together.

Every Step Hurts: When standing, walking or running, the three bones that make up the ankle joint provide support, shock absorption and balance. The bones allow for the up and down movement of the ankle. There is another joint beneath the true ankle joint that provides for the side to side motion of the ankle that is essential in enabling us to adjust our gait on uneven surfaces. These joints are typically covered by a smooth, slippery articular cartilage surface that provides for easy, fluid motion. Sometimes from trauma but, more commonly, through wear and tear, the cartilaginous surface starts to wear or become roughened, and abrasive osteoarthritic surfaces are the result. Patients come to see me distressed as each step is associated with the pain of the two rough surfaces colliding.

Arthritis of the foot and ankle can present in a variety of ways. My patients often complain of tenderness at the ankle joint along with warmth or swelling. Early morning pain is often worse as is the aftermath of extended standing or walking. Nonsurgical therapy varies from anti-inflammatory medication — like ibuprofen – to bracing and inserts for shoes which support and help to minimize pain. Periodic cortisone injections can help keep pain under control.

If degenerative changes are severe enough and fail to respond to conservative therapies, my patients and I have a discussion about surgery. For arthritis of the ankle — or tibiotalar joint — two surgical options exist — a total ankle replacement or a fusion. The most appropriate surgery depends of a variety of factors which I review carefully with patients during a pre-operative consultation.

A fusion, or arthrodesis, fuses the bones of the joint completely, making one bone out of two. The goal is to decrease pain by eliminating motion in the arthritic joint. I remove the damaged cartilage in surgery and then use pins, plates and screws to fix the joint in a permanent position. This is usually a successful and durable solution to the problem. An important factor to consider is the extended period of non weightbearing required after surgery to facilitate successful fusing of the two bony surfaces. My staff and I work together to ensure that the patient has a post operative rehabilitation plan that will allow them to continue to take care of the business of life while ensuring optimal frecovery.

For some patients, a total ankle arthroplasty (TAA or ankle replacement) is a good surgical choice. With a TAA, the damaged cartilage is removed and the bone is prepped — a new metal and plastic joint is implanted — effectively replacing the joint. While TAA is an excellent solution for a painful, arthritic ankle joint, the life-span of the implant must be considered. Current implants last about 20 years, and the joint does not respond well to demands such as running or jumping — generally making TAA a poor choice for a younger patient. I typically perform ankle replacement surgery in older, less physically active arthritic patients with appropriate indications for surgery.

I’m Confused — Orthopedist or Podiatrist for Foot/Ankle Pain? With so many options available to treat common disorders and associated pain in the foot and ankle, don’t suffer with limitations to basic daily and recreational activities.

While podiatrists have a role to play in care of the foot and can manage a number of common conditions, orthopedic surgeons like me who specialize in foot and ankle conditions are medical doctors who have completed medical school, an orthopedic residency and an additional year of fellowship specific to disorders of the foot and ankle. We are well-trained and uniquely qualified to use medical, physical and surgical methods to restore function and to lead a team of other professionals including physician assistants, physical therapists and pedorthotists.

In Chicago, we eagerly await the return of longer, warmer days. Life is too short to struggle with nagging, chronic foot and ankle pain that makes each step a burden. Consider the options and take needed action to put some “spring” in your step.

Gregory G. Caronis, M.D. is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Advocate Medical Group Orthopedics. His practice specialties include disorders of the foot and ankle, fracture care and general orthopedics. Dr. Caronis is currently accepting new patients in his Lincolnshire and Libertyville offices. For more information or for orthopedic questions, he can be reached at drgregcaronis@gmail.com or at AMG Orthopedics (847) 634-1766.

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