Athletes Treating Athletes Blog
In this installment of our “injury of the week” series we’re going to be talking about posterior tib strains. We’re going to keep the same format we’ve had all along. First we’re going to start off with a review of what the injury is and talk about if this is what you have and when you need to worry/consult your doctor. From there we’re going to take you through the steps of the A-T-A self treatment system so that you’ll have a “sample treatment session”.
What is the posterior tibialis and where is it?
The posterior tib is one of those muscles that mistakenly gets lumped into the “calf”. Yes, it’s located in that area, but the problem with that belief is that the posterior tib doesn’t function like the overlying gastroc and soleus muscles.
Above we have the superficial calf muscles. You’ve got your gastroc and soleus which move down the leg to join together and form the achilles tendon. They have one function- to flex the ankle. The difference between these two is that the soleus does so while the knee is bent and the gastroc does so while the knee is straight.
The posterior tib on the other hand runs from the outer part of the lower leg down to the inside of the ankle. This means that not only does it flex the foot (like the gastroc and soleus), it also inverts it (points the foot in).
So how did I hurt it?
When it comes to the posterior tibialis the thing to remember is that this muscle is a stabilizer muscle. It helps the ankle and foot keep you upright when you hit uneven/loose terrain and it works as a pair with the peroneal muscles (which run down the outside of the calf).
The peroneals pull the foot out and the post tib pulls the foot in. Together they help to keep the foot level so that the ankle can move through it’s full range of motion and the big muscles of the calf and upper leg can propel you forward off of your big toe. This is important! If there is a limitation in the ankle (either the joint itself is tight or your calves are tight or your big toe doesn’t extend all of the way), this mechanism will not work. The only way to keep yourself moving forward is to rotate the foot in or out. The same goes for the other end of the leg chain- the hip. If you can’t extend your hip all of the way and push off using the glutes, you end up with a short stride that doesn’t give the ankle enough time to move through it’s motion. The body will compensate by rotating that leg so that you don’t fall over your own two feet. If your motion seems fine in the ankle and hip and you’re still getting this- time to look at your shoes. Too much/too little support can have the same effect!
In this picture you can see how the foot twists out and effectively twists the whole leg. When this happens the posterior tib gets loaded with every step and trying to shock absorb and then push off instead of the gastroc/soleus. The post tib is a skinny muscle compared to those two and it isn’t designed to handle that. Over time it will break down.
In this picture you can see how the foot twists in. Again, the whole leg twists to compensate for this. Here the posterior tibialis takes on the increased work load of shock absorbing and then trying to push off. Over time it can break down and get injured.
So what’s the take away from all of that? This is one of those injuries where you have two things to fix: 1) the injured muscle, and 2) the mechanism that caused it (tight ankle, tight calf, big toe, or tight hip). If you only fix the muscle, this will haunt you for a long, long time. Take the time to get to the root of the problem.
The inside of my calf hurts? NOW WHAT?
The first step is determining if it is truly a posterior tib injury or something else. Remember, the goal of this series is not to keep you away from your doctor so that you can self treat everything. It’s to teach you how to catch the early symptoms and take care of them before it becomes a full blown injury. That being said, post tib injuries can start as a gradual ache/pain during workouts or even after. It can also be one of those injuries where nothing is wrong until you sit down and stiffen up. Then all of the sudden- ouch!
Typical symptoms with post tib injuries include pain or tightness on the inside of the calf in the middle of the shin bone (tibia). They can move all the way down the inside of the calf to the ankle, as well as, into the bottom of the foot. Symptoms are typically worse with activity and better with rest, and swelling can occur at the lower tendon (where it wraps around under the arch of the foot) if the inflammation is severe enough.
Here are some guidelines for when seeing a doc should be your top priority: 1) If you see any bruising and/or swelling, and 2) numbness/tingling along the outside of the leg (knee to foot). An injury to the post tib is a symptom of a bigger problem. Think of it like a link in the chain. Something stopped working and that chain got snapped due to the increased strain on it.
Be smart. If you aren’t getting better, get some help. I can’t tell you how many patients I get who wait months and even years before coming in for treatment. The longer you wait, the harder it is to get rid of. Here are some tips for finding the right health care professional:
- Find someone certified in soft tissue mobilization, whether it’s instrument assisted like Graston Technique or hands on like Active Release (ART). This is where you need to do your homework to see who’s near you. Follow the links to those sites to search their provider lists and read up on what each is all about. Post tib injuries respond well to hands on/massage work. If this is something that’s been around for a while, exercise alone won’t cut it as the whole leg has learned to compensate and multiple muscle groups will require attention.
- Not every PT and chiropractor are created equally. Some do very little soft tissue work and rely mostly on exercise and manipulations, others do not. We all specialize in our own little areas. Frustrating right? Not really. Most of us have websites to tell you what we are certified in. If we don’t? Pick up the phone and call us. There’s nothing worse than wasting 8 insurance visits not getting better only to switch places and have them fix it in two.