The medial longitudinal arches on the bottom of your feet help distribute body weight across your feet and provide a springiness to each step. The arches must be both sturdy and flexible to adapt to different surfaces and stresses.
People who have flat feet have either a very low arch or no arch at all, meaning that one or both feet lie flat on the ground when you’re standing. Sometimes flat feet cause no problems, in which case you don’t need to do anything. But if they cause problems, you need to have a podiatrist look at them.
At Chicagoland Foot and Ankle, our board-certified podiatrists specialize in diagnosing and treating flat feet. Because flat feet can cause a variety of problems, we're taking this opportunity to explain the condition and what you can expect.
Causes of flat feet
All babies are born with flat feet, medically known as pes planus. Arches start developing around 3-5 years and should be fully formed by the time the child turns 6. About 2 out of 10 children, though, retain their flat feet into adulthood.
If the child’s lack of an arch is due to incorrect bone development or a condition such as spina bifida, a doctor needs to treat the underlying cause to promote arch development. When flat feet develop in adulthood, there’s usually an underlying medical cause.
Many cases of flat feet owe their origin to genetics. If your parents have flat feet, you’re likely to have them too. Other common causes include:
- Foot or ankle injuries
- Being overweight, obese, or pregnant
- Damage, dysfunction, or rupture of the posterior tibial tendon
- Muscle diseases such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy
- Long-term foot stress, leading the posterior tibial tendon to weaken in older age
- Tendinitis or other tendon damage
In the case of adult-onset flat feet, the condition is called fallen arches.
Types of flat feet
Not all flat feet are the same; there are four different types:
The most common type is flexible flat feet. When you’re sitting, you can see the arches, but they disappear when you put weight on the foot. This type develops during childhood or the teen years, affects both feet, and gradually worsens with age. The ligaments and tendons in the arches can stretch, tear, and swell.
A person with rigid flat feet has no visible arches when sitting or standing, and that can occur in one or both feet. This type often develops during the teen years and worsens with age. Your feet may hurt, and it may be difficult to flex them up or down or move them side to side.
Adult-acquired (fallen arch)
With an adult-acquired flat foot, the arch unexpectedly drops or collapses, causing the foot to turn outward. The problem may affect only one foot or both, and it’s usually painful. The most common cause is inflammation of or a tear in the posterior tibial tendon that supports the arch.
Some babies have a congenital disability called vertical talus. It prevents arches from forming because the ankle’s talus bone is in the wrong position. The bottom of the foot resembles the bottom of a rocking chair, leading to the nickname “rocker-bottom foot.”
Foot problems from flat feet
Not all flat feet produce symptoms, and if you’re not experiencing any, there’s nothing much to be done about it. But flat feet can lead to an array of problems in some people.
The most common symptom is pain in the feet from strained muscles and connecting ligaments. You can also experience pain, swelling, and/or stiffness in the ankle, arch, calf, knee, hip, lower back, and lower legs due to the uneven distribution of body weight and a change in the way you walk.
And an alteration in gait can lead to further pain and an increased risk for injury.
In addition, when you have flat feet, your ankle may turn inward as you walk, causing your feet to point outward. This is known as overpronation. Shoes with proper arch and heel support can help prevent the ankle roll while better aligning your foot.
If your flat feet are producing painful symptoms, we may recommend physical therapy, stretching exercises, proper footwear, and/or custom-made orthotics to provide relief.
To learn more about flat feet and what you can do to help them, schedule an evaluation by calling any of our locations or book online today. Our offices are in the Mount Greenwood and Portage Park areas of Chicago, as well as Orland Park and New Lenox, Illinois.