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Is My Leg Pain Coming From My Feet?


The Source of Your Leg Pain


When we feel pain, it is natural to assume that the source of pain is coming directly from the area in question.  For example, if our knees or shins hurt after a run, we may assume that the impact of the run directly affected these areas in a negative way.  The reality, however, is that the pain may be rooted in a different area, such as our feet.  And, sometimes doctors begin to notice that patients with certain conditions seem to develop other issues.  Most of us agree, for example, that poor foot and ankle support can result in back pain. So it may lead one to question, “Is my leg pain associated with something going on elsewhere in my body?”


Arch Height and Correlation to Leg Pain and Injuries

Unfortunately it takes a while for research to confirm correlations, and much longer to understand exactly why or how it all happens. Such is the case with linking low or high arches of the feet with certain injuries in our lower extremities (our legs).  Years ago, research did not find a correlation between the height of a person’s foot arch and certain types of leg injuries, but more recent research does indeed confirm this association.  And while more research is needed to determine exactly how these two areas of the body relate, there is enough information to help doctors begin to recognize patient problems, take measures to prevent these problems, and adequately treat the problems as they arise.


People -- especially runners and athletes -- who have low arches or flat feet typically go to the doctor more frequently for knee and ankle pain and injuries while those with high arches tend to sustain more stress fractures. Because of this general understanding, prevention programs and treatment programs have been developed, especially for those with low arches.


Childhood and the development of our feet


It takes a child until about the age of eight for the foot arch to fully develop. By this point, most of the bones have hardened and the muscle strength of the feet should be well established in order to support the foot arch, helping to prevent flat foot or low arches. There is a high correlation between wearing shoes and arch development.  In cultures where children usually spend their time playing barefoot on natural ground, such as in underdeveloped regions of India or Africa, the muscles in the feet develop to be strong, helping the arch develop fully and thus preventing flatfoot. Additionally, children who wear open toed shoes have less problems with flatfoot than those who regularly wear closed-toe shoes. This could be due to how much easier it is for kids to kick off open toed shoes and play barefoot, helping strengthen the muscles that support the foot arches.


Childhood & the development of our feetYour Pedorthist may argue that the bare foot is perhaps best equipped for walking on the varied terrain of a natural environment, but in reality most of us spend our days on hard pavement and other man-made, generally flat surfaces.


Children who are severely overweight might have additional problems, because the body weight pushes down on the arch, making it more difficult to develop, and making it harder for doctors to recognize and diagnose the issue. It is recommended that children who are obese be seen regularly by a foot specialist so measures can be taken immediately to prevent flat foot if it does develop. Birth deformities can also contribute to flatfoot, but this is more rare, and usually is addressed during the few months after birth.


The prevention of injury and pain


People, especially runners, with flat feet often sustain knee injuries that are much less common in those with high arches. The exact mechanics that cause this phenomenon are unclear. Those with both low arches and anteverted hips have a much greater risk of tearing their ACL and other ligaments. However, the use of orthoses in combination with physical therapy that involves certain hip exercises can go a long way in strengthening the muscles to help overcome these problems. Studies conducted on female soccer players in college showed a 70-percent decrease in these injuries when a well-planned exercise program was incorporated into their practices and pregame warm ups. The way runners place their feet during a stride also contributes a lot to the injuries sustained during runs, and learning better foot placement might be helpful in reducing or preventing some of these injuries.


The bottom line: doctors now understand more than ever before how arch height can affect a person's leg health. Because of this increased understanding, they can now take better precautions to prevent these injuries and can better treat the problems once these problems present themselves.


As mentioned above, at-risk children should see a podiatrist early on, and those individuals, young and old, with particularly low or high arches will likely benefit from doctor-prescribed orthotics and exercises. And if you’re experiencing unusual leg pain, don’t stop at the assumption that it may just be an issue with your leg.

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