Extensor tendinitis describes inflammation of the extensor tendons which run along the top of the foot and straighten the toes. There will often be pain on top of the foot which would worsen during activity. This foot injury is normally brought on by overuse and even badly fitted or too tight shoes. Rest is the main way to recover from this injury.
Treatment involves rest, application of cold therapy during the acute stage followed by a full rehabilitation program including gentle stretching and strengthening exercises.
Extensor tendonitis symptoms
Symptoms of extensor tendonitis consist of pain on the top of the foot which is made worse during running and is relieved with rest. Pain is likely to occur gradually over time through overuse with the athlete complaining of an aching pain on the top of the foot. There may also be some diffuse swelling over the top of the foot.
Symptoms may also be felt when the tendons are stretched by curling the toes. One assessment test is resisted dorsiflexion where the therapist resists the athlete attempting to pull the foot upwards. If pain is triggered then the extensor tendons are likely to be involved.
Extensor tendinitis explained
Extensor tendonitis, or extensor tendinopathy as it is probably better known amongst the medical profession, is one of the most common causes of 'top of foot pain'.
It affects the tendons which pull the foot upwards (tibialis anterior, extensor hallucis longus, extensor hallucis brevis and extensor digitorum longus tendons). Tibialis anterior tendonitis is most common. The term tendonitis implies inflammation of the tendon (itis meaning inflammation) whereas tendinopathy is probably a more accurate term. It is a general term which includes degeneration of the tendon rather than acute inflammation.
Extensor tendonitis is usually caused by overuse. Badly fitting shoes or shoes that are laced too tightly causing pressure on the top of the foot can cause inflammation of the tendons. A change in training methods, particularly running uphill, particularly on a treadmill can also place more stress on the extensor tendons at the top of the foot.
Running uphill means the foot has to be lifted slightly higher on each stride. Running downhill the muscles work eccentrically which again places stress on the extensor tendons as can running on ice or slippery surfaces.
Extensor tendonitis treatment
What can the athlete do about inflamed extensor tendons?
Rest until the pain has gone. Continuing to train when the foot is painful will only make the injury worse and delay the healing. If it becomes chronic or the tendon degenerates then healing will take much longer. Apply a cold therapy and compression wrap.
Apply ice or cold therapy for 10 minutes every hour initially, reducing the frequency as required over the next 48 hours. Ice can be applied in a wet tea towel or with ideally with a re-useable cold therapy and compression wrap. Do not apply ice directly to the skin as it may burn. Read more on PRICE principles.
Once the initial painful acute stage has passed, then application of heat may be more effective. Ensuring footwear is appropriate and in particular the shoes are not laced too tightly may also help. Over-tightening the laces puts direct pressure over the extensor tendons in the foot. It may help to try a different lacing pattern. Running shoes are usually good for 400 miles of running and after this period should be replaced. Read more on choosing running shoes.
When all pain has gone, a full rehabilitation program to strengthen the extensor muscles should be done. A sports injury professional can advise on the correct exercises to strengthen the extensor muscles. These should always be done pain-free and with care. As this is often an overuse injury, doing too much too soon may increase the chances of the injury recurring rather than achieving the opposite result.
Toe raise exercises which lift the foot up and curl the toes back will work the foot extensor muscles. These should be done in the seated position initially and will also work other muscles of the lower leg and shin.
What can a sports injury specialist or doctor do?
A professional will assess the injury and confirm the diagnosis, ruling out the possibility of a metatarsal stress fracture. Often pain on passive stretching indicates tendinitis, but pain when the toes are pulled outwards might indicate a stress fracture.
A doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen although this should not be taken if the patient has asthma. If it is a long-term problem, a steroid injection may be given although repeated injections to tendons can weaken them. In very rare cases surgery is performed.