Metatarsalgia can be described as a painful condition of the bottom of the foot and toes called the forefoot (or commonly referred to the “balls of the foot” or “toe box”). Usually, this discomfort can be sharp, burning or aching during weight-bearing activities like running and sports-related training as well as even walking, standing and stair climbing.
There could be a variety of factors as metatarsalgia can stem from an underlying pathology like a diabetic neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, a fracture, an injury to a structure called the plantar plate or even a Morton’s neuroma.
However, this article will concentrate on the acquired pain from a mechanical cause from metatarsophalangeal malalignment (poor positioning or posture of the toes). This type of primary metatarsalgia can result from an increase of pressure or loading on the forefoot. In addition to the discomfort, a person’s foot will have a wear pattern on the shoe and callouses at the region of excessive loading (usually at the 2nd through 5th forefoot or metatarsals, as well as the great toe).
The excessive stress on the metatarsal region can be from:
- Poor foot biomechanics with increased loading at the forefoot during the gait cycle
- Abnormal foot position like a low arch
- Hallux valgus (bunion) which studies show to be a significant cause of metatarsalgia.
Hallux valgus refers to the most common deformity of the foot as the first toe or metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint will rotate and shift outward which significantly changes the function of the foot. While hallux valgus is more likely to affect women than men, it will occur in about 25% of adults between the ages of 18 and 65 years old and 35% of individuals over 65 years old.
In relation to metatarsalgia, as the hallux valgus (bunion) causes the great toe to shift laterally outward, towards the small toe), the other 2nd through 5th toes do not have room so those digits will be shifted up which can put pressure to the top of the shoe. At this point, the great toe cannot be loaded properly during the gait cycle and the weight-bearing pressure will transfer to the metatarsals which are not designed to take that amount of pressure. Hence, the forefoot region becomes agitated and inflamed resulting in metatarsalgia. Furthermore, the potential atrophy of the fat pad will exacerbate the symptoms of metatarsalgia.
If the hallux valgus deformity is not corrected, metatarsalgia can still occur but here are some options to reduce the symptoms:
- Use of padded socks
- Use of over-the-counter orthotics or custom-made orthotics.
- Add a plantar pad that elevates the 2nd through 5th toe as seen in pictures below with or without orthotics
- Refrain from wearing high heels.
- Obtain proper supportive and cushioned shoes as well as proper width of shoes.
- Reduce the amount of impact loading for a short amount of time (i.e. running, etc…).
- Reduce body weight if overweight.
- Use of ice.
- Potential use of NSAIDs but will require consultation with your physician.
- Gentle stretches and exercises (see attachment)
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Medbridgeeducation.com for Exercises