Foot and ankle surgery
Our feet are made up of 26 bones and more than 33 joints arranged in columns and arches that vary in stiffness and flexibility. Many common problems can occur in this complex structure.
The foot is usually separated into three different parts:
The back of your foot (hindfoot) is made up of your heel bone (calcaneus) and your ankle (talus). They’re joined together by your subtalar joint, which allows your foot to move from side to side.
Your ankle bone is joined to your leg bones (tibia and fibula) at your ankle joint, which acts like a hinge. This allows your foot to bend up and down.
The middle of your foot (midfoot) is made up of five tarsal bones. These form the arch of your foot. Your tarsal bones are connected to the front and back of your foot by muscles and the arch ligament (the plantar fascia). They act as shock absorbers when we’re walking or running.
The front of your foot (forefoot) is made up of your toe bones (phalanges), which are connected to five long bones (metatarsals) by joints. The joints in your toes don’t move very much. Your forefoot takes half of your body’s weight.
The muscles in your lower leg are attached to bones in your feet by tendons, and they control movement that allows us to stand, walk, go on tiptoes and jump. These muscles move your toes and control the position of your foot as it hits the ground, allowing it to become flexible and cushioning the impact. They also make the arches of your feet more rigid to push your body forward when you move.
Your heel bone is connected to the calf muscles in your lower leg by your Achilles tendon, which is the most important tendon for movement. The tibialis posterior tendon, which attaches the underside of your foot to your lower leg, helps supports the arch of your foot and allows you to turn it inward.
The main nerve of your foot controls the muscles in your sole and gives feeling here and to your toes. Other nerves give feeling to the top and outside edge of your foot.
Do I need surgery?
Most people with problems in their feet or ankles won’t need surgery. The decision whether to operate depends on a number of factors:
- how bad your symptoms are (pain and the effect this has on your life)
- your needs
- your response to other treatments, including drugs, orthoses and special footwear.
Discuss these with your healthcare professionals, who’ll be able to advise you on whether they think surgery would be a suitable option.
The decision to have foot and ankle surgery is usually based on lifestyle choices and the information given by surgeons rather than being essential in terms of life and death. But if your skin is affected or your feet are quickly becoming deformed, it’s important to get an assessment for urgent surgery to avoid infection and alert your healthcare professionals to possible stress fractures. You’ll always have the final decision on whether to have the operation.
You may feel nervous, stressed or scared if you’ve been told you need surgery. Finding out as much as you can about the operation and understanding the process will help you feel calmer and more in control.
Bunions are bony lumps that develop on the side of your foot and at the base of your big toe. They’re the result of a condition called hallux valgus, which causes your big toe joint to bend towards the other toes and become deformed. If symptoms carry on over a long period, your toe may need to be surgically corrected. This involves straightening your big toe and metatarsals, a process called an osteotomy. Although this may make your joint stiffer, it works to ease the pain.
Most surgery can be performed as a day case and takes up to an hour. Your foot will be bandaged and you’ll need to wear a Velcro surgical shoe for four to six weeks afterwards.
If your bunion has been caused by rheumatoid arthritis, you may also develop rheumatoid nodules. These firm, pea-sized lumps can occur at pressure points such as your big toe joints, the back of your heels or on your toes, but they can be surgically removed.
As well as bunions, hallux valgus can also cause your other toes to become clawed or permanently bent. This condition is known as hammer toes. Damages caused by hammer toes can be eased by:
- arthroplasty – removing the deformed joint between your toe bones (phalanges), which leaves the joint flexible
- arthrodesis – fusing your phalanges together, which leaves your toe more stable but means you’ll only be able to wear flat shoes after the operation.
Both procedures are performed as day cases and last around an hour. Your stitches will be removed about two to three weeks following surgery and you’ll need another dressing for two to six weeks after that. You should limit how much you walk for the first three days.
The main advantages of foot and ankle surgery are:
- long-lasting pain relief
- better function and mobility
- a greater choice of comfortable footwear improved appearance of your feet, depending on the procedure.
As with any surgery, results can vary from person to person and there can occasionally be complications.
There are some possible disadvantages to foot and ankle surgery:
- Replacement joints aren’t as hard-wearing or long-lasting as natural joints.
- Some operations restrict joint movement (although this doesn’t mean that it’ll reduce your mobility).
- You may not be able to use your foot properly for some time after the operation (for example, you may need to keep weight off your foot for three months after an ankle fusion). This can be a particular problem if you’re likely to have problems getting around using crutches.
- Occasionally small nerves around the cut in your skin (the incision) can be damaged, leading to patches of numbness.
- There can be complications during surgery, for example swelling, stiffness or infection.
- In some cases where bones are joined (fused) together, the bones can take longer to fuse together than expected and you won’t be able to use your foot properly during this time. Occasionally a non-union occurs – where the fusion doesn’t work properly – and you may need further surgery.
Preparing for surgery
Before your surgery, your doctor or nurse will check your general health and give you information about preparing for surgery. Ask about any possible changes to your medication and any other questions you may have.
Before the operation your doctor will discuss how long you’ll need to stay and what you’ll need to do before surgery with you. This may include not eating or drinking for a few hours before your operation.
You’ll be asked to sign a consent form that gives your surgeon permission to carry out the treatment. It’s important to ask any questions you may still have. Ask your doctor, nurse or therapist to explain anything you don’t understand. This will help if you’re feeling a little worried.
You should also discuss with your surgeon, anaesthetist or nurse whether you should stop taking any of your medications or make any changes to the dosage or timings before you have your surgery. Different units may have different advice. A doctor or nurse will check your general health to make sure there won’t be problems with a general anaesthetic if this is being used.
This will vary depending on the type of operation and your general health, so ask your surgeon what to expect. Planning ahead will make things easier when you get home.
Different surgeons have different ideas about the treatment you’ll need after an operation. This is affected by the type of operation and your health. You should discuss with your surgeon what to expect after the operation. Your nurse or physiotherapist will be able to offer support.
After you’ve been discharged from hospital an appointment will be made for you to come in as an outpatient so that your progress can be checked. Sometimes your GP will help with this aftercare. A district nurse may be asked to remove your stitches and change your dressings.
If you stopped taking any of your regular drugs or had to alter the dose before the operation, it’s very important to talk to your rheumatologist for advice on when you should restart your medication.
It’s a good idea to make preparations before the operation. Simple things like choosing clothes that are easy to put on, stocking up your freezer or arranging to have some help at home will all make it easier to manage. It’s a good idea to arrange help with transport because you’ll probably have to attend hospital regularly to see your surgeon, nurse or therapist.
An occupational therapist will be able to advise you before your operation if you have any concerns about coping afterwards. This might be particularly important if your condition affects your upper body and you think you might have difficulty getting around on crutches.