How To Treat Hallux Rigidus In Runners

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Doug Richie Jr., DPM

   The selection of footwear that has maximal stiffness across the forefoot will decrease the dorsiflexion moment directed across the MPJs during running gait. Most running shoes have some degree of flexibility across the forefoot. Therefore, I often direct runners with stage II and greater hallux rigidus to switch to lightweight day hikers and switch from asphalt to dirt trails for long distance running. Yes, these shoes may be too stiff for the average runner but they can facilitate profound relief of jamming of the great toe joint.

What About Medication Or Physical Therapy?

   I do not advocate the use of injectable corticosteroids for athletes with hallux rigidus unless there may be some benefit for short-term relief of symptoms. For the most part, the relief is so temporary that this type of treatment is disappointing. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories can relieve pain but do not reverse the pathology of hallux rigidus. Pain relief with medication may only mask the degenerative process and could lead to rapid deterioration of the great toe joint in running athletes.

   Physical therapy offers a reasonable level of hope to the athlete with hallux rigidus who wants to avoid surgery. Just as we have learned with cartilage injuries to the knee, aggressive rehabilitation protocols using muscle reeducation, joint mobilization and flexibility exercises can stabilize a joint and minimize symptoms of degenerative arthritis. Strengthening of the flexor hallucis longus muscle as well as the plantar intrinsic muscles of the feet can improve stability of the first MPJ. A skilled therapist can also mobilize this joint to increase range of motion. All of these measures can be of value to the patient even if he or she ultimately undergoes surgery.

A Closer Look At Surgical Considerations For The Athlete

   Surgery designed to relieve the symptoms of hallux rigidus can have one or more intended methods and outcomes. Surgeons may restore articular cartilage via stimulation of local chondrogenic source, transplant autograft tissue. One may perform decompression or realignment of the first MPJ via osteotomy of the first metatarsal or proximal phalanx. Alternately, surgeons may resect the joint surface(s) via arthroplasty with soft tissue interposition or a prosthetic implant, or perform arthrodesis of the first MPJ.

   There has been a variety of papers over the last 40 years that have documented positive and negative outcomes of surgical procedures for the treatment of hallux rigidus. Few have focused on the long-term effects of any surgical treatment for running athletes. The majority of patients included in large group studies receiving surgery for hallux rigidus are over the age of 50, overweight and have a sedentary lifestyle. The positive outcome of many surgical procedures performed on these types of patients could not be expected in an athletic patient population.

Why Intraoperative Inspection And Debridement Are Important

   With any surgical intervention for hallux rigidus, surgeons should perform an intraoperative inspection and debridement before making any decision about osteotomy, fusion, etc.

   Many times, a patient showing significant symptoms of hallux rigidus with minimal radiographic evidence of degenerative joint disease will demonstrate unexpected cartilage loss when one surgically explores the joint. At other times, a rigid joint will suddenly demonstrate over 50 degrees dorsiflexion after simple resection of the osteophytes and freeing of the sesamoid apparatus adhering to the plantar surface of the first metatarsal.

   One should perform subchondral drilling on all cartilage defects whether the surgeon opts for osteotomy or a simple cheilectomy. Newer techniques of autograft implantation of osteochondral material obtained from the talus offer promise for the treatment of early stage hallux rigidus. However, no studies have been published showing outcomes with running athletes.

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