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What is Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2016
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Most people are familiar with the disorder carpal tunnel syndrome, which is caused by compression of a nerve in the wrist. This can affect function in the hand significantly. A similar condition is tarsal tunnel syndrome. Like carpal tunnel syndrome, tarsal tunnel syndrome involves compression of a nerve that affects body function, but this time the nerve innervates or supplies feeling to the foot and runs through the tarsal tunnel, which is located near the ankle bones.

There are many things in the tarsal tunnel, but the structure affected in the syndrome is the posterior tibial nerve. Under a variety of circumstances the tunnel may narrow and this can result in fairly prominent symptoms. These include numbness in the foot and pain that radiates down the foot.

Other people report burning sensations in a foot or note a constant pins and needles sensation. Areas where these symptoms occur are often on the inside of the foot and ankle and on the foot’s sole. Sometimes symptoms spread above the ankle or past the sole, or they may just occur on one area of the foot. In most cases, wherever unusual or painful feelings are present, being on the feet for long periods of time exacerbates them. Strenuous exercise can cause very prominent occurrence of symptoms.

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Compression resulting in tarsal tunnel syndrome isn’t always caused by the same factors. In some cases overdeveloped calf muscles create compression of the posterior tibial nerve, or alternately being very overweight might result in this issue. Injury to the ankle like a fracture or sprain that creates inflammation is another way to develop this condition. People might be more prone to tarsal tunnel syndrome if they have flatter feet, and one potential cause is a large varicose vein in or near the tarsal tunnel. Growths in the tunnel, as caused by cysts, could provoke these symptoms too.

Treatment of this disorder depends on cause. Sometimes the condition is temporary, such as when injury to the ankle occurs. In these cases ice and rest may be adequate to reduce inflammation and ultimately make symptoms go away. Physicians could prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help with discomfort and reduce swelling.

Doctors may also suggest orthotics for shoes or specially designed shoes that reposition the foot, creating less compression on the nerve. Some prefer more strident measures and might want a person to wear a brace or another device to keep the foot in a position that helps to minimize narrowing of the tarsal tunnel. If these measures fail or if a mass like a cyst is present, surgery may be the best option for treatment, and there are different types of surgery depending on the underlying cause.

Ultimately tarsal tunnel syndrome is successfully treated in many cases. Some people will be able to address the condition with very little intervention, and others might need more medical help. In many instances, need to use greater measures to treat depends on the reason the condition is present and how greatly quality of life is or will continue to be affected.

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