26 bones, 33 joints, and over one hundred small muscles and tendons; and that’s just one of them. The human foot is one of the more intricate and fascinating parts of the human body. Our feet act as the sole connection from our bodies to the earth below. We rely heavily on our feet to guide us through our day and allow us to participate in all the activities we enjoy.
The foot is almost always active. Every time we contact the ground, our feet need to respond to our environment. So why should we care about our feet if we’re not experiencing any pain or discomfort?
The foot itself is dynamic and is the densest area in our body relative to its size as it makes up a mere 1.5% of our total body weight per foot. But with this, our two feet together make up 25% of our overall bone structure. As stated previously, we have 52 bones; we have 33 joints in each foot which connect the bones and over 100 small muscles, ligaments and tendons that share a role in multi directional actions.1
When the foot moves, it functions in three different parts. First, we have the rear foot which connects the ankle to the heel. This area is comprised of a mortise or slot which allows the foot to freely move up and down. The rear foot also creates the initial stability that we need every time we take a step.
The midfoot, which extends from the heel to the base of our toe bones, provides shock absorption and bears the weight when walking or standing, rotating inward and outward in three different planes of movement to adapt to different types of surfaces.
Lastly, we have our forefoot which is generally the area of our toes. It helps provide the push off to swing our leg forward as well as the power to step.
Every time we take a step, a force is exerted back towards us by the ground. This force can range from equal and up to 7x our body weight!1 With the rise in step count over the past few years, Americans on average take close to 10,000 steps per day; that means the foot may be supporting up to several hundred tons of force a day!
Just as our hands improve their sensory awareness with touching and gripping different sizes and shapes of objects, the foot gets stronger with tactile response and input from the ground. Whether it be grass, concrete, cobble stone or uneven terrain, the foot improves its versatility and strength in a challenged environment.
The foot is a highly sensitive area, housing the most sensory nerves per square inch in the body. There are hundreds of thousands of these receptors in the foot which is more than the hand and mouth combined. In the foot itself, there exists a feedback loop between sensation outside on the sole of our foot and internally throughout the rest of the body. When the foot has contact with the ground, it senses the environment felt and sends messages to the rest of the body and brain. Based on subsequent feedback, the foot will make adjustments to maintain balance and posture when we stand, walk, run and jump.
When your foot hurts you for one reason or another, what happens? We stop using it. Whether by limping to avoid use or immobilization, the foot’s inner workings put on a leave of absence. And when this happens, it can create a spiraling effect up and down our lower body.
I like to compare this idea to when someone’s arm is placed in a cast. When a doctor places your injured arm in a sling or cast it is meant to immobilize the limb to allow for proper healing. That’s great, but what happens to your arm the minute that cast comes off? It feels better than it did before, but your strength and motion are nowhere to be found. Why does this happen?
The easy answer is because we stopped using our arm. The muscles of the immobilized area ceased most function. It took a vacation and although the healing that occurred was necessary, it can create challenges, including both above and below the area immobilized.
The same effects can happen to the foot when we protect it from the outside world. Just like our arm in a cast, our foot can weaken without going through the normal rigors of daily life. The feedback loops that help keep us steady and upright weaken due to disuse since the foot is no longer receiving proper signals from outside surfaces. Those hundreds of small muscles and tendons will go on a vacation and may not be ready when asked to come back. This can create a cascade of events leading to injury like a loose screw in an intricate machine that causes the entire system to fail. We need to allow our foot to break free from over protection and allow it to function without restrictions in the outside world.
Here are some tips to make you and your feet happy and healthy this upcoming season:
As always, be sure to check in with your physician before beginning any new exercise routine. If you experience any pain in your feet, schedule a free assessment at your nearest Athletico. A free assessment is a 30 minute session with one of our movement experts that can provide you with treatment recommendations before your injury worsens. Free assessments are available in-clinic and virtually through our Telehealth platform.
Physical therapy is usually the thing you are told to do after medication, x-rays or surgery. The best way to fix your pain is to start where you normally finish – with physical therapy at Athletico.
The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.
1. Kluitenberg, B., Bredeweg, S.W., Zijlstra, S. et al. Comparison of vertical ground reaction forces during overground and treadmill running. A validation study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 13, 235 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2474-13-235