Many people who are trying to be active have to decrease or even stop their exercise program because of foot pain. Plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and Achilles tendonitis are some of the more common complaints. Often the recommendation from their health professionals is to get a pair of orthotics, wear them in all of their shoes, and never to go barefoot.

This advice makes little sense to me for most people as I find that the reason for most of these complaints is the inability of the foot and ankle, and especially the big toe, to work properly resulting in a foot that is too stiff . Orthotics make sense to me when a foot is unstable, such as in flat feet, but not when they are too stiff.

Well it seems that I am not alone. Patrick McKeon, a professor in Ithaca College’s School of Health Science and Human Performance agrees. He believes that the small muscles in the feet play an important and unappreciated role in movement and stability and that their role is similar to the core stabilizing muscles in the abdomen.

The rationale is that there is a feedback loop between the larger extrinsic muscles of the foot and leg, the smaller intrinsic muscles of the foot, and the nerve connections that send information from those muscles to the brain. Putting a big insert in the shoe interferes with this feedback from the smaller foot muscles and causes the the larger muscles to overcompensate leading to their exhaustion. This fatigue causes the forces of activity to shift to the bones, tendons, and ligaments and subsequent injury.

Professor McKeon recommends doing exercises barefoot that involve changing postures and causes the foot and ground to interact is what is needed to re-establish a proper feedback loop in the foot. Activities such as Tai chi, yoga, Pilates, martial arts, dance, and even just walking around the house. He also advocates doing a subtle, short-foot exercise that targets the smaller muscles by gently squeezing the ball of the foot back toward the heel without curling the toes that can be done in any position.

If your foot and ankle problems are not resolving and your new orthotics are not helping, consider going barefoot and getting treatment to correct underlying foot and ankle mechanical dysfunctions to help soften a foot that is too rigid. Just might help with foot pain.

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