Many patients of mine walk out with a set of calf stretches. It’s sometimes hard to connect the dots of why calf flexibility can aid in treating painful feet. People are often aware of foot pronation (where the foot rolls towards the midline of the body) and its effects on injury. Many patients scream out for arch support devices (orthotics) or report their shoes incorporate ‘good arch support’.
However, pronation is actually a very small part of foot injury, and the amount of support a shoe can give is often quite debatable. Yes orthotics are a fantastic treatment for reducing excessive force in injured tissue (force is slightly different to the stand alone movement coming from pronation) however foot injury is often multi-factorial and as such requires treatments in conjunction with orthotics to get the best results.
In fact the movement of pronation can be a compensatory mechanism due to tight calves, which then increases the force in other parts of the foot, leading to pain.
Common injuries like heel pain can be due to tight calves due to the muscles being continuous with the plantar fascia (a ligament that attaches to the heel bone).
Usually when the calves pull tight, the plantar fascia also undergoes increased stress. Likewise forefoot pain can also be contributed to tight calves where the foot is unable to compensate, thus the forefoot is driven into the ground harder and for a longer periods of time. This increases the amount of pressure underneath the knuckle part of the foot where a multitude of common forefoot pathologies can occur.
Going further up the chain, shin splints occurs when the muscles attaching to the shin bone work beyond their capabilities, these muscles are antagonist to muscles of the calf. When the heel touches the ground, these muscles have to fight against the tight calves to lower the lower the foot, overworked they start to track on the shin.
As mentioned before, orthotics work brilliantly to decrease the excessive force that would be contributing to foot and leg pain. Orthotics can also be tweaked with heel raises to aid in calf function.
Apart from stretching, which I admit can be tedious, we offer a few manual therapies which can help free up calf muscles. This includes foot mobilisation which helps the joints function around the calf muscles, as well as dry needling/massage which targets tight knots.
Hopefully this article brings to light why calf flexibility is important. If you feel that you have tight calves, pain in your shins, heel or forefoot, then it might be time to see us to help prevent future issues, or aid in treating pre-existing/reoccurring injuries.
Dr Aaron Wicks Podiatrist