In a typical foot, the plantar fascia ligament curves slightly upward, which balances the weight and impact of walking, running, and jumping optimally. This curve, known as the “arch” of the foot is the reason wet footprints have a half-crescent shape in the middle, where the arch doesn’t quite touch the ground.
However, in some feet, the plantar fascia ligament has a very low curve, or no arch at all. This condition, known as “flat feet” or “fallen arches” can lead to problems with impact absorption, weight distribution, and even injury.
Causes of Flat Feet
Flat feet may be the result of genetics (some people are simply born with flat feet), a gradual collapse of the plantar fascia from strain or injury, degenerative diseases like arthritis, neurological or musculoskeletal conditions like muscular dystrophy.
Wearing unsupportive shoes like high heels, or working at a job that requires you to walk or stand for long periods of time are other common factor in the development of flat feet. The gradual wear, tear, and impact to the arch from overuse or unsupportive footwear can cause the foot to slowly flatten over time. Obesity, or weight gain from pregnancy, can likewise contribute to flat feet because of the additional impact, wear, and tear, the feet sustain.
Signs and Symptoms of Flat Feet
Having flat feet almost always goes hand in hand with overpronation, a condition in which the foot rolls inward while walking. If you overpronate, you may notice that the soles or tread of your shoes wears more quickly on the inner border of your shoes.
Signs and symptoms of flat feet vary, depending on how severely your arch is collapsed. However, if you are dealing with flat feet, you are also likely to notice the following telltale signs:
- Feet point slightly outward while you walk or stand
- Over time, you may begin to experience lower body joint problems.
- Arch pain that intensifies as the arch continues to flatten and drop. Daily activities and walking can become very uncomfortable.
- Hip, knee, or back pain as the body struggles to absorb impact while moving
- A feeling of heaviness or clumsiness in the feet while walking
How to Determine Your Arch Type
There are a few easy, free ways to broadly determine the condition and shape of your arch. Use these tools to find out if your arches are flatter than average, or if you pronate while you walk:
Wet Footprint Test
The Wet Footprint Test involves analyzing the shape of your wet footprint on a piece of paper or cardboard. If your footprint looks like a completely filled-in foot (i.e., not much of an inward curve in the center), you may have flat feet.
Many running shops or sports stores offer free gait analysis to help you learn whether your gait might contribute to unnecessary wear on your ligaments and joints, or leave you vulnerable to injury while running. A gait analysis can pinpoint overpronation and give you insight into whether or not your feet are absorbing shock and impact poorly, telltale signs of flat feet.
Running shops or sports stores may also offer an analysis of the wear pattern on your athletic shoes, to give you an idea of how your feet are hitting the ground and taking the brunt of physical activity. A lot of wear on the inner border of the soles can indicate overpronation.
Risk Factors Related to Having Flat Feet
Having flat feet increases your risk for developing numerous other foot conditions, as well as injury during physical activity. If your arch is collapsed or flat, you are more likely to experience the following:
- Because a collapsed arch puts more strain on the ligaments and tendons that support the foot and ankle and over time, tendonitis may develop, and small bones in the foot may suddenly collapse or break during physical activity.
- A flat arch puts you at greater risk for developing Plantar Fasciitis (inflammation or degeneration of the arch) and painful heel spurs (small calcium deposits that form in an attempt to support the arch).
- Overpronation causes instability in the gait that may increase your risk of sprains or falls
- Hip pain, knee pain, and joint pain as the body struggles to absorb impact properly.
- Shin splints as a result of poor impact absorption
- Arthritis in the feet and surrounding joints
Flat Feet in Children
It’s important to know that babies, children, and teenagers may appear to have flat feet. However, there’s usually no need to worry unless your child has an accompanying degenerative or neurological disorder.
Thicker padding on the bottom of the foot can diminish the appearance of the arch. And just like other ligaments, bones, and cartilage take shape in a developing body, the arch of the foot will mature and grow over time. Remember: The arch exists primarily to support the weight of the body and absorb impact while walking, running, or jumping. Little feet need to support less weight, which allows the arch to develop gradually as a child grows.
Supporting and Treating Flat Feet
Feet are the foundation of the body. If flat feet are left untreated the condition can cause progressive pain as the impact from walking, standing, or running shifts to other parts of the foot that are ill-equipped to bear so much impact.
The best way to treat flat feet is by giving the collapsed arch additional support and cushioning through quality orthotic inserts. Orthotic inserts lift fallen, flat, or collapsed arches to an optimal height that absorbs impact and weight correctly, effectively taking the pressure off other areas of the foot. Orthotics can also provide cushioning for a painful, damaged foot and allow healing to take place.
In addition to wearing orthotics, it’s important to stop wearing unsupportive footwear (like high heels or flip flops) that may have contributed to the development of fallen arches. Daily stretches can improve circulation to the damaged feet, strengthen supporting muscles and ligaments in the feet and legs, and improving flexibility and elasticity.