When the toe extensors become short or tight.

Here is a really great video.

One of us was treating physicians for the Chicago Joffrey Ballet for a time in the early 2000’s. Feet like these were nothing new. For the most part there was amazing flexibility, amazing strength and occasionally some nasty bunions but not as often as one might think. What was clear however was that the majority of the population of feet seen were freakishly strong, amazingly flexible and with skill levels that most of us only dream of.

In this video we can see two things which we just highlighted. Full uninhibited ranges of motion and apparent strength. In order to have full ranges we usually see wonderful strength. When we see a loss of range of motion, frequently but not always, we see weakness of the muscles necessary to drive that range. In other words, if we had the strength we would have the ability to engage the full range because of that strength.

You have heard it here before, that when there is weakness in a muscle around a joint (since all muscles cross a joint) we will see a neuro-protective loss of range due to a neuro-protective tightening (we are using the word TIGHTENING very carefully, note we did not use the word SHORTNESS) of some related muscles in a response to attempt to stabilize the joint. It is not a perfect remedy, but what other strategy do we have ? Sadly, it is usually the strategy of the owner of the broken part to try to stretch that tightened (again, note we did not use the word shortened) muscular interval which then presents the joint again with the afferent detection that the joint is unstable and unprotected. So, more tightness develops and the vicious cycle continues. It is our hope that those that find they need to stretch daily will someday have a light bulb moment and see that they are doing nothing to remedy the vicious cycle. That searching for the weakness that drives the neuro-protective tightness (as opposed to true “Shortness”, which is truly physiologic loss of the length-tension relationship) is where the answer lies to remedy the joint imbalance.

Here this client has generous ranges of motion and highly suspected appropriate strength. The two often go hand in hand unless the client has the phenomenon commonly referred to as “double jointed” which is truly just a collagen abundance in the passive restraints (lets leave this as a merely generalized term for now, it is a topic of another blog post).

What we wanted to talk about here today was the plethora of tightness AND shortness we see daily in the extensors of the toes. How many of your clients have the flexion (toe curl, at all joints) range of the toes that this client has ? Not many correct ? But most have near full extension ranges of the toes correct ? This can only come down to one theory that must be proved or disproved. That being that the toe extensors are either tight because the flexors and plantar intrinsics are weak OR that the toe extensors are short because they have been in this environment of flexor-plantar weakness for so long that the tightness eventually morphed into a more permanent reduced length-tension relationship.

Go ahead, see if you can flex your toes or those of your spouse or clients as far at this dancer can. See if you have full range at the metatarsophalangeal joints like this dancer does. Very likely you will notice a nasty painful tension and stretch across the top (dorsum) of your foot. This is reduced length of the long and/or short toe extensors and likely fascial connective tissue as well. Heck, what else runs across the top of your feet ? Nothing else really. So, what is one to assume ?

Digit extensor tightness is rampant in our society. We have been in shoes and orthotics and stable shoes for so long that our flexors and foot intrinsic muscles have become pathologically weak. As the opposing pull of the flexors and extensors across the end of the foot at the metatarsalphalangeal joints becomes so imbalanced our foot has no other choice but to express this imbalance.

Is this why we see bunions, hammer toes, even gentle flexion of our toes even at rest ?

Yup, the mass population of feet we see are slowly going into a coma. The pattern we see most commonly is even a bit more complex however, it is not quite as simple as tight-short extensors and weak flexors and intrinsics. Looking at the functional neuro-pathology of the hammer toe proves the complexity of our compensations. Here is the most typical pattern (and hence the hammer toes that are taking over the earth):

  • weak long toe extensors
  • strong short toe extensors
  • weak short toe flexors
  • strong long toe flexors

This combination ends up in a functional/flexible hammer toe, and if left alone to fester, a rigid hammer toe in time.

From this combination you should now as the question, “So, when I attempt to put my foot and toes in the flexion positioning of this dancer in the video above what is the tightness i feel across the top of my foot ?”

Answer: functional tightness (and possibly shortness if it has been there long enough, which is likely for most folks) of BOTH the long and short digit extensors (EDB, EDL). Think about it, in the hammer toe position both are short, but for different reasons. The EDB because of the resting extension position at the metatarsal phalangeal joint and the EDL becuase it is wrapped around two distal chronically flexed interphalangeal joints in the presence of an ALREADY extended metatarsophalangeal joint ( which takes up EDL length).

This phenomenon occurs rampantly in the upper limb as well across the elbow, carpals and finger joints. It is a big component of TOS and carpal tunnel and of the multitude of functional problems that the elbow such as medial and lateral epicondylitis.

Why do you care ? After all we are The Gait Guys. Well, because most of us swing our arms during gait and what is pathologic in the upper limb can affect the lower limbs and gait. It is all connected after all, according to the song ……

Chronic disruption of the length-tension relationships of the toe extensors.

It is a bigger problem than you think.

Shawn and Ivo. Discussing the distal sister disease of polio……… affecting just the toes of course. Ever hear of Tolio ? (pronounced……Toe-Lee-oh). Just kidding.