What's in a foot?

The anatomy of the foot is not something that most of us spend a lot of time thinking about. They’re just feet, right? We walk on them, we stand on them, we shout when they smash into things or step on things or get caught on the corners of things. Lately, though, I have spent a lot of time thinking about feet, talking about feet, observing the way I move my feet, and generally wondering various things about feet, shoes, and even socks. It’s maybe not the most typical topic of rumination available, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, our feet are fascinating.

Did you know that there are 26 bones in each foot? That means our feet alone account for approximately one quarter of all the bones in the entire body (when you’re judging by number of bones). Some of the key bones to know in my particular line of work include the metatarsals (the front half of the arch) and the various cuneiform bones (the back half of the arch).

With 26 bones crammed into two relatively small appendages, you can imagine the intricacy of the system of joints and interlocking parts. All of those bones fit together like puzzle pieces, creating a foot that can bend, flex, move, and do all kinds of amazing things like rolling smoothly from flex to point and creating balance by gripping the floor. And we haven’t even gotten to the connective tissue yet!

The main types of connective tissues found in the foot are found elsewhere in the body – ligaments and tendons. The main difference between a ligament and a tendon is what the tissue is connecting. Ligaments connect bones to other bones. Tendons connect muscles to bones. Ligaments tend to wrap around joints or systems of joints to provide stability and “tightness,” whereas tendons promote movement of the joint. The Achilles Tendon is probably the most commonly known tendon of the foot, and you can feel it at the back of your heel – it’s got a rope-like feel right under your skin and it feels like it connects the bottom of your heel to the lower part of the calf. Next time you’re doling out a foot rub, give a very slight “pinch” of light pressure on either side of the Achilles tendon and see what kind of response you get! (usually it’s a positive one...)

There are ligaments that wrap around the ankle almost like a bandage. When you roll your ankle, a lot of times it’s one of these bandage-like ligaments (the superior or the inferior extensor retinaculum) that gets strained (pulled a little too hard) and inflamed – some people can even sense the tightness of the ligament(s) going around the top and side of the ankle when there’s a strain. There are sprawling net-looking tendons that span the top and bottom of the foot, connecting the tip of each toe to a central spot near the back of the foot. When you flex your toes, sometimes you can catch a glimpse of one or even all 5 of these top-layer tendons (called the extensor digitorum longus tendons) at work.

When it comes to the anatomy of the foot, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more to learn about these incredible feet of ours!


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