Flat feet (also called pes planus or fallen arches) is a formal reference to a medical condition in which the arch of the foot collapses, with the entire sole of the foot coming into complete or near-complete contact with the ground. In some individuals (an estimated 20–30% of the general population) the arch simply never develops in one foot (unilaterally) or both feet (bilaterally).
Flat feet in children
Flat feet of a child are usually expected to develop into high or proper arches, as shown by feet of the mother.
The appearance of flat feet is normal and common in infants, partly due to “baby fat” which masks the developing arch and partly because the arch has not yet fully developed. The human arch develops in infancy and early childhood as part of normal muscle, tendon, ligament and bone growth. Training of the feet, especially by foot gymnastics and going barefoot on varying terrain, can facilitate the formation of arches during childhood, with a developed arch occurring for most by the age of four to six years. Flat arches in children usually become proper arches and high arches while the child progresses through adolescence and into adulthood.
Because young children are unlikely to suspect or identify flat feet on their own, it is a good idea for parents or other adult caregivers to check on this themselves. Besides visual inspection, parents should notice whether a child begins to walk oddly or clumsily, for example on the outer edges of the feet, or to limp, during long walks, and to ask the child whether he or she feels foot pain or fatigue during such walks. Children who complain about calf muscle pains or any other pains around the foot area may be developing or have flat feet. Pain or discomfort may also develop in the knee joints. A recent randomized controlled trial found no evidence for the efficacy of treatment of flat feet in children either for expensive prescribed orthoses (shoe inserts) or less expensive over-the-counter orthoses.
Flat feet in adults
Flat feet can also develop as an adult (“adult acquired flatfoot”) due to injury, illness, unusual or prolonged stress to the foot, faulty biomechanics, or as part of the normal aging process. This is most common in women over 40 years of age. Known risk factors include obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Flat feet can also occur in pregnant women as a result of temporary changes, due to increased elastin (elasticity) during pregnancy. However, if developed by adulthood, flat feet generally remain flat permanently.
If a youth or adult appears flatfooted while standing in a full weight bearing position, but an arch appears when the person dorsiflexes (stands on heel or pulls the toes back with the rest of the foot flat on the floor), this condition is called flexible flatfoot. This is not a true collapsed arch, as the medial longitudinal arch is still present and the Windlass mechanism still operates; this presentation is actually due to excessive pronation of the foot (rolling inwards), although the term ‘flat foot’ is still applicable as it is a somewhat generic term. Muscular training of the feet, while generally helpful, will usually not result in increased arch height in adults, because the muscles in the human foot are so short that exercise will generally not make much difference, regardless of the variety or amount of exercise. However, as long as the foot is still growing, it may be possible that a lasting arch can be created.
Treatment of flat feet may be appropriate if there is associated foot or lower leg pain, or if the condition affects the knees or the lower back. Treatment may include using Orthoses such as an arch support, foot gymnastics or other exercises as recommended by a podiatrist/orthotist or physical therapist. In cases of severe flat feet, orthoses should be used through a gradual process to lessen discomfort. Over several weeks, slightly more material is added to the orthosis to raise the arch. These small changes allow the foot structure to adjust gradually, as well as giving the patient time to acclimatise to the sensation of wearing orthoses.
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