Foot and ankle pain might be common in active, athletic individuals but that doesn’t mean it can or should be ignored.
If left unexamined, mild foot and ankle discomfort could lead to pain that disrupts day-to-day activities, or even lead to a more severe injury. Pain and noticeable discomfort are signs that there could be something wrong. Identifying the site and source of
the pain could be the first step to getting back on your feet, pain-free.
Lan Chen, MD, Orthopaedic Surgery at NorthShore, discusses foot and ankle injuries common in the sporty set:
Plantar fasciitis. A common cause of heel pain, plantar fasciitis occurs when the plantar fascia, a band of tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes, becomes swollen or irritated. The pain is most severe after long periods of rest—first
thing in the morning or when climbing stairs—and it typically subsides the more active you are throughout the day. In older individuals, plantar fasciitis is caused by the natural wear and tear of aging. Plantar fasciitis is also a common injury in young athletes
and those who spend long periods of time on their feet.
Treatment: There is no cure-all for plantar fasciitis. Giving your feet a break, cutting back on exercise or simply changing your shoes could relieve some or all of the pain. Stretching of the ankle and plantar fascia are also very important.
If you think you might be suffering from plantar fasciitis, discuss your treatment options with your physician.
Achilles tendonitis. Often an overuse injury, Achilles tendonitis is a swelling of the Achilles tendon, which extends from the heel to the calf muscle. Not stretching before and after physical activity, wearing high heels, or simply having
flat feet or fallen arches are all common causes of Achilles tendonitis. Tendonitis pain may be mild to moderate but the pain following an Achilles tendon tear will be sudden and severe.
Treatment: If you give it the time and rest it needs, Achilles tendonitis will heal on its own, but make sure to see your physician to determine the extent of the injury. Your doctor will then help you determine the best way to proceed, which
could include rest or the use of crutches to keep your weight off the injury.
Stress fracture. Stress fractures are small cracks that develop in the bones of the feet, ankle and legs. For active individuals, they are most often caused by overuse in high-impact sports like distance running (e.g. feet repeatedly hitting
the ground). Worn out, unsupportive shoes as well as a sudden increase in physical activity might also be to blame. The most common locations of stress fractures are the second and third metatarsals in the foot, and the bone at the top of the foot called the
navicular. Pain from stress fractures will most likely develop gradually, increasing the more you are on your feet and decreasing when at rest. Also look for swelling and bruising at the site of the pain.
Treatment: Rest is essential! Ignoring the pain could cause more serious injury, including a complete break of the stress-fractured bone. See your doctor to determine the exact location of the stress fracture; treatment varies depending on
the severity and location of a stress fracture.
Turf toe. Common in football players, turf toe is a sprain of the ligaments surrounding the big toe. It’s caused by a hyperextension of the toe, or bending back of the toe beyond the point of normal movement. Injury can occur from a sudden,
forceful movement or repeated hyperextensions over a period of time. Pain, swelling and limited movement of the big toe are all indicators of turf toe.
Treatment: As with many overuse injuries, rest is best. Depending on the severity of the injury, your doctor might recommend immobilization, either by taping the injured toe to another to relieve the stress on the joint or the use of a cast
Ankle sprain. With the ice and snow on the ground, ankle sprains are most common in the winter months. Mechanical twisting of the lower leg and ankle can cause simple ankle sprains, which will heal on their own, or high ankle sprains, which
can be more serious and require additional stabilization in a cast or boot. Other injuries such as ligament tears, tendon strain and cartilage injuries can all occur in an ankle sprain.
Treatment: Most ankle sprains will heal on their own. Resting a short period to allow the initial pain and swelling to subside is common and you may need a brace or boot initially. Chronic pain after an ankle sprain is a clue that there is
something else going on. And that’s when it is important to see your doctor right away. Additional imaging and exam might be needed to clarify the situation and physical therapy might come into play.
Have you injured yourself while playing your favorite sport?
Developing a regular exercise routine is one of the most important elements of a healthy lifestyle, and roughly 53% of Americans show their agreement by exercising three or more days a week. However, participation in any physical activity, whether it's hitting
the gym or the slopes, increases your risk for an exercise-related injury. Still, the health benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks, as long as you approach each new physical activity and sport armed with the right information.
Get fit but also stay safe with the help of our sports injury prevention infographic. Learn how to recognize common sports injuries that affect both athletes and energetic amateurs and use our simple, easy-to-follow sports injury prevention tips to keep
you pain free and active. Click on the link to view our full NorthShore University HealthSystem
Dunlap, MD, Orthopaedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine specialist at NorthShore, has been treating elite-level hockey players since 2009. He has worked with USA Hockey as a team physician during tournaments in the United States and Europe. As a former college
hockey player, his own personal athletic experience provides insight into the way athletes think, both in injury and health.
Here, he tells us what inspired his pursuit of sports medicine and why getting an athlete back in the game is the biggest reward of all:
Were you a hockey player yourself?
I grew up playing hockey starting at the age of five and played through college at Yale University. I still play occasionally in adult hockey leagues and am on the ice several times a week helping coach my nine-year-old son’s team. My daughters, ages four and
five, are also on the ice, learning to skate.
What made you choose sports medicine/orthopaedics as a specialty?
I sustained a knee injury that required surgery while playing hockey my freshman year in college. My surgeon was a former Yale football player and he did a great job taking care of me. He got me back on the ice without missing a beat. That’s what sparked
my interest in orthopaedics and, in particular, sports medicine. I love working with motivated athletes, helping them to get back to the best of their abilities. I feel that as a former athlete, I have some insight into how athletes think and take great joy
in seeing them get back into the game.
What is the day-to-day like for a team physician, particularly as a physician of hockey players?
There is actually a lot of down time covering these tournaments. I love being around hockey, talking hockey with the players, coaches and training staff so I get to be around that during these tournaments. Typically, I consult with the training staff
and evaluate players before and after practice and am obviously ready should there be any injuries that occur during game play. While there are the more significant injuries to tend to (lacerations, dislocations, concussions), many times it’s just as important
to make sure that things such as pink eye don’t spread throughout the team or that a player with the flu has a separate water bottle from the rest of the team. Hockey players in general are great to deal with. The perception is that hockey players are rough
and tough, but they actually tend to be good-natured, down to earth, and appreciative of the help we can provide.
What challenges have you encountered as a hockey team physician?
As with any elite athletes, the players we work with are incredible competitors. They love hockey and they love to be on the ice. However, it can be difficult at times as they can minimize the significance of injuries, especially those that require
subjective complaints and feedback such as concussions. It is my job to make sure we look out for the athlete’s best interest and health, both short-term and long-term. It can be unpopular to pull a player off the ice, but if it’s the right thing to do then
that is ultimately my job and that is why I’m there with the team.
What are the rewards of working with elite athletes?
The biggest reward is seeing the players succeed. The team physician is just one cog in the wheel to maximize and optimize the players’ abilities. There is also personal satisfaction for me in being able to combine two of my passions: hockey and medicine.
How does your work with USA Hockey inform your treatment of other patients?
I think working with athletes of any level is fundamentally the same. Is there a difference between working with the elite young athletes at USA Hockey who will someday make hockey their profession and a weekend warrior who just needs to be able to be on the
ice or court Saturday afternoon? Absolutely. But my goal is the same: to keep them in the action and maximize their ability to compete and be at their best.