What Football Can Teach Us About Foot Injuries?

What can football teach us about foot injuries?

By: Dr. Amit Raj

Introduction

Even if you are not a fan of football, you’re likely a fan of the Super Bowl (or at least the commercials!). It’s an event that’s hard to miss. Every NFL player’s goal throughout the season is to play in the Superbowl, and this year it is at the beautiful Sofi stadium in sunny LA. The season is long and grueling and can be tough on the body. You see players get injuries throughout the season. Injuries extend from the head all the way down to the toes.

Here, we’ll talk about some of the most common foot and ankle injuries that we see in football throughout a season.

Turf Toe

(Not so) fun fact: turf toe is one of the most common foot injuries in football. Whether you are a Julio Jones or a Patrick Mahomes’ fan (I’m more of a Colts fan), these two NFL players have both suffered this injury. The most common place this injury occurs is on a turf field. Tuft toe can result from excessive pushing off of the big toe when you run or jump.

Turf Toe. Image courtesy of the NIH.

Turf toe is pain at the joint where the big toe attaches to the rest of the foot. Some symptoms are pain and swelling at the big toe joint. You may have difficulty bending and straightening your toe.

X-rays are commonly taken to see if there is any dislocation or fractures of any of the bones. If there is suspicion of any soft tissue damage, an MRI will be ordered to visualize these damaged areas.

Treatment may include the following: putting ice packs on your toe for 20 to 30 minutes every 3 to 4 hours for the first 2 to 3 days or until the pain goes away. Elevating your foot on a pillow or taking anti-inflammatory medications prescribed by your healthcare provider.

Your toe can also be taped to restrict how much it moves; during Kansas City’s Super Bowl run in 2021, Patrick Mahomes had a special insole placed in his shoe that reduced the movement of his big toe. He later decided to have surgery to repair the ligaments.

Achilles Injuries

This is another common injury that you may see during a play. Picture this:

A quarterback throwing a Hail Mary on a last second play to his open wide receiver in the end zone and the cornerback attempts to jump as high as his opponent to try and intercept the ball to save the game. As one of the players comes down, they may land awkwardly and have a sudden, forceful motion that stresses the calf muscle on the initial land.

That injury is…**drum roll**… an Achilles tendon injury! You may have heard of big name NBA players like Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant suffering injuries coming down for a rebound, but it is very common in the NFL, as it is the same mechanism of injury.

The Achilles tendon is the strongest tendon in your body. It is a tissue band running the length of the lower leg and connecting with the heel. Football players are at an increased risk for these injuries and may experience tendinitis (inflammation in the tendon) in the area when the tendon becomes inflamed by increased use or overexertion.

Unfortunately, when going up to catch that touchdown pass in the end zone, you can rupture the tendon when awkwardly landing on your foot. It can occur once the tendon is overstretched or when it’s weakened due to repeated tendinitis. Most tendinitis issues can be resolved with self-care, such as rest and a CAM boot. Ruptures, especially in an elite athlete, require surgical intervention.

In order to prevent injuries, the key is to stretch, stretch, stretch, before and after activity, and wearing shoes that are of right fit.

Check out our Instagram page and see how I repaired a patient’s Achilles tendon in the operative room.

Ankle Sprains

Another common injury are ankle injuries. There are two common ankle sprains that football players experience: high ankle sprains and inversion ankle sprains. A running back just pushed the defensive line, but then gets tackled and awkwardly buckles his ankle on his offensive lineman and suffers an ankle sprain.

In both cases, injury is caused by a tear between the ligaments connecting the leg and the foot. Sometimes, those tears can even result in fractures. The fast-paced action on the field and sudden pivots and turns make ankle injuries one of the most frequent injuries a football player can experience.

Unfortunately, the physical examination is often nonspecific, especially immediately following the injury and you are unable to pinpoint the specific ligaments, since the patient is swollen and in extreme pain everywhere. Plain x-rays are usually normal in terms of showing the normal relationship between the tibia and fibula.

However, if the injuring force is great enough, there may be separation of these bones, which allows an abnormal shift of the ankle joint. This can lead to chronic stiffness, pain, and ultimately arthritis of the ankle joint.

X-rays are also necessary to rule out other injuries such as fractures of the ankle and/or foot. MRI is the common modality to show if there are any damaged soft-tissue structures such as ligaments, tendons, and cartilage.

The athlete may get an ankle brace or taping of the ankle may help reduce the risk for recurrent injury once the athlete returns to sports. Surgery is rarely necessary for high ankle sprains and is indicated only if there is significant injury to the ligaments around the ankle resulting in visible separation of the tibia and fibula bones. If there is surgery warranted, the surgeon will place one or two screws across the two bones to restore their normal anatomic relationship.

Conclusion

Even though there are more injuries that a football player can experience during the season, these are the most common that we see they experience.

Hopefully, we see no injuries during the playoff push, but you will now be an expert in identifying a foot and ankle injury when it takes place on the field.

Good luck to your favorite team, as my team is sitting at home on the couch watching the playoffs like me!

Dr. Amit Raj is a doctor at Ankle N Foot Centers. Book your appointment here!