This morning I came across the following in ‘Essential Clinical Anatomy,’ one of the standard anatomy textbooks used by first year medical students:
The muscles of the foot are of little importance individually because fine control of the individual toes is not important to most people. Rather than producing actual movement, they are most active in fixing the foot or in increasing the pressure applied against the ground by various aspects of the sole or toes to maintain balance
Little Importance? I was shocked by the first sentence. Most people can’t even name a single muscle of the foot nor do they realise that their feet are anatomically designed to be nearly as dextrous as their hands. We may have bound our feet in tight shoes all our lives and lost touch with their potential for fine motor function but this doesn’t mean the muscles have no individual importance. It doesn’t mean the potential isn’t still there. I’m on a mission to educate people on the importance of maintaining strong, mobile and healthy feet so this one paragraph in this one anatomy book prompted me to ask the question: why are the muscles of the feet important?
A few foot facts
There are two types of muscles of the foot, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic muscles have at least one attachment on the leg. They connect the leg to the foot. Intrinsic muscles have both attachments within the foot itself. It’s the intrinsic muscles I’ll be discussing here. There are 20 intrinsic muscles of the foot which are layered and compartmentalised. 14 of those muscles are located on the plantar aspect (plantar means the sole of your foot), 2 are on the dorsal aspect (dorsal means the top of your foot) and 4 are in between (intermediate). Plantar muscles are also grouped into four layers within four compartments.
Muscles of the feet have long names that can be a bit off-putting at first. Names like flexor digiti minimi and extensor hallucis brevis are quite a mouthful. However there is a method to the madness that can easily be deciphered. The first word refers to the action of muscle and you have a few basic choices: Flexion (curling your toes) Extension (straightening the toes) Abduction (spreading the toes) and Adduction (drawing the toes together). The second word tells you which toe the muscle is moving and you have three choices: Hallucis (refers to the big toe), Digitorum (refers to the middle three toes) and Digiti Minimi (refers to your pinky toe) Some muscles will have the word Brevis (short) attached to their name. This is just to differentiate them from the extrinsic muscles that perform similar actions on the same toe. (Extrinsic muscles are the ones that attach to the leg and are sometimes suffixed with ‘longus’ – ’cause they’re long, right?)
So now when you hear the words ‘Extensor Hallucis Brevis’ you’ll know exactly what this muscle does, right? How about your flexor digiti minimi?
Let’s now move on to a few reasons your intrinsic foot muscles are very very important.
Important function #1 – Fine Motor Skills
If you read the previous two paragraphs you now have a better understanding of the musculature of your feet than most people on this planet. You’re beginning to have an awareness of just how intricate the design of the foot is and perhaps you’re suspecting that those tired old dogs might be capable of much, much, more. If so, check out the video below of Sarah Kovac knitting – with her feet. Sarah was born with a rare disability that has left muscles in her hand virtually useless. Consequently, she has developed what some would call super-human feet except that her feet are not super-human. They are anatomically just like mine and yours.
Important function #2 – Pronation Control
Common understanding is that despite their compartmental and layered arrangement the plantar muscles act mainly as one unit maintaining the arches of the foot while walking and standing so traditional treatment of conditions like plantar fasciitis, flat feet, and over pronation has been through the use of orthotics and other support rather than strengthening the muscles of the feet. However, there is a growing awareness amongst podiatrists and other health professionals that while orthotics might be helpful in the short-term they are not a long-term solution and in fact may actually worsen certain conditions. If you are having problems with your feet related to atrophied, under-used muscles the solution is to start gradually and gently using those muscles again.
You have an abductor hallucis. In fact you have two. This muscle connects the heel and the big toe, is an abductor (that means it pulls the big toe away from the other toes) a weak flexor and helps to maintain the arch of the foot. I also came across this from the Evidence Based Fitness academy.
The function of this muscle is in supinator of the 1st metatarsal, invertor of the heel bone, evertor of the tibia and supporter of the medial arch. Or in other words, this muscle helps resist excessive foot pronation during midstance!
So if you’ve been prescribed motion controlling running shoes or an orthotic your problem might not be over pronation but rather poor pronation control. Feet were designed to pronate in order to safely move over rugged terrain. You just need better muscle control to stabilise natural pronation.
Important function #3 – Arch support
When researching the individual bones of the foot the most common function tagged onto the end of the list of amazing feats performed by each of these tiny muscles is “and supports the arches of the feet”. So here’s a very simple exercise you can start doing now to re-awaken the individual function of these muscles:
Perform this exercise barefoot, either seated or standing.
- First lift the big toe, trying to keep the other toes as relaxed and motion-less as possible. Hold for four seconds and lower.
- Next try spreading your big toe away from the other toes. Hold for four seconds.
- Next, practice lifting each toe one by one, again keeping the other toes as relaxed and motion-less as possible. Hold each toe for four seconds. Move from toe to toe keeping each one raised as you go.
- Then lower each toe one by one.
Eventually you can try lifting each toe while keeping the others on the ground. This may be very hard at first but you will slowly see those neuro-muscular pathways re-awakening. If Sarah Kovacs can knit with her feet you can learn to lift your toes, right?
Important function #4 – Balance, proprioception, gait
In addition, the intrinsic muscles of the foot must fine-tune the stability and support of the foot as it moves through the heel-touch to toe-off phase of the gait pattern, modulating the amount and position of force placed over the architecture of your foot as you move from standing to walking, propelling you forward from the toes when in toe-off.
When people start working more with their feet one of the things they remark on is how much they can feel with their feet now. They are much more aware of textures of the surfaces they’re walking over, much more conscious of how their feet move to propel them forward from heel to toe. They have a different relationship with their feet and appreciate them much more as feeling, sensing, dynamic organs.
Evaluate your own involuntary foot muscles
- Stand facing a wall with fingers lightly touching the wall for balance and stability
- Notice how stable you feel on your feet, the height of your arch etc
- Lift one foot off the floor and hold for 30 seconds
- Observe any small wobbles or corrections that occur in the muscles of your feet. Notice how the height of your arch changes
If this exercise is difficult for you, or if you notice a lot of movement in your foot then you could do with some work on your intrinsic foot muscles. Start with the toe lifts above.
Important function #5- Circulation
There is one last thing you need to understand about your feet. They are very far away from you heart. You didn’t know that did you? This means that they are more prone to having circulation problems due to the sheer effort of getting de-oxygenated blood and waste products (via the lymphatic system) back up the leg. Luckily the body doesn’t only rely on the heart to pump blood up and down the limbs. The process of venous return is largely aided by the movement of muscles of the feet and legs acting as a pump, sending deoxygenated blood back up to the heart to be re-loaded with oxygen and nutrients. However, the trick about venous return is that you need to move your muscles for it to work efficiently. Movement is medicine! Research has shown that walking and other exercise that contract the plantar muscles (even just the weight of your body) help pump blood back up the foot and leg. Good circulation leads to good waste removal by the lymphatic system, healthy nerve fibers and healthy muscles. So you need to move the muscles of your feet in order to stay healthy. For me, that’s enough in itself to suggest that the muscles of the foot are fairly important.
How important are your feet?
If you’re still reading, well done! I’m assuming I’ve convinced you that there’s a lot of really important stuff going on in your feet. Otherwise you wouldn’t have made it this far. Want to take it a step further? The Healthy Feet Class is a great place to start. You’ll learn lots more information like this and a full set of exercises that will really turn the corner on any foot, ankle or gait problems you might be experiencing. Find an upcoming class date here or get in touch to arrange a private one-to-one session. Contact details above and to the right.