The Anatomy of the Foot and Common Foot Problems

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Your feet are made for walking, running, jumping, balancing, climbing, and more, so it's no wonder that they're so complex. In fact, the foot houses a total of 28 bones—nearly a quarter of all the bones in your entire body—as well 30 joints and more than a hundred muscles, ligaments, and tendons.

All of these structures work together to carry out two important functions: weight-bearing and propulsion. In addition, the foot must be flexible so that it can adapt to uneven surfaces and remain stable. This is one reason each foot has so many bones and joints.

This article offers a brief overview of the structures of the foot and how they work together. It also looks at some common problems that can arise from overuse, injury, or normal wear and tear of the foot.

Foot Anatomy

The foot can be divided into three sections: the forefoot, midfoot, and hindfoot. There are bones, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments in each of these sections.

Bones

Bones in the foot can be divided into three categories based on where they are located.

Forefoot

As per its name, the forefront is the very front part of the foot that includes the toes and the ball of the foot. It is made up of several parts.

  • Phalanges: These are the toes. They are made up of a total of 14 bones: two for the big toe and three for each of the other four toes.
  • Metatarsals: These are five long bones that extend from the base of each toe to the midfoot. The first metatarsal bone leads to the big toe and plays an important role in propulsion (forward movement). The second, third, and fourth metatarsal bones provide stability to the forefoot.
  • Sesamoid bones: These are two small, oval-shaped bones beneath the first metatarsal on the underside (plantar surface) of the foot. It is embedded in a tendon at the head of the bone (the part nearest to the big toe). Its role is to reinforce and reduce stress on the tendon.

Midfoot

This section of the foot is made up of five irregularly shaped bones called the tarsals. They are named the navicular, cuboid, and medial, intermediate, and lateral cuneiforms.

Together, the tarsals form the arch of the foot. The arch plays a key role in weight-bearing and foot stability.

Hindfoot

There are only two large bones in this section of the foot:

  • Calcaneus: This is the large foot at the heel of the foot, also known as the heel bone. Its main function is to transfer most of the body weight from the legs to the ground.
  • Talus: This is the bone that sits between the calcaneus and the two bones of the lower leg (the tibia and fibula). It helps transfer weight and pressure across the ankle joint.

Joints

Joints are where two bones meet. In the feet, each big toe has two joints: the metatarsophalangeal joint at the base of the toe and the interphalangeal joint just above it.

The other four toes have three joints each: the metatarsophalangeal joint at the base of the toe, the proximal interphalangeal joint in the middle of the toe, and the distal phalangeal joint closest to the tip of the toe.

Muscles

The muscles that control the movements of the foot originate in the lower leg and are attached to the bones in the foot with tendons.

These are the main muscles that facilitate movement in the foot:

  • Tibialis posterior: The muscle that supports the foot's arch
  • Tibialis anterior: The muscle that allows the foot to move upward
  • Peroneus longus and brevis: The muscles that control movement on the outside of the ankle
  • Extensors: The muscles that raise the toes to make it possible to take a step
  • Flexors: The muscles that stabilize the toes and curl them under

Tendons

Tendons are fibrous connective tissues that attach muscles to bones. There are three major tendons that help facilitate foot movement, including flexion (the forward bending of the foot) and dorsiflexion (the backward bending of the foot):

  • Achilles tendon: This is the most notable tendon of the foot which runs from the calf muscle to the heel. It is the strongest and largest tendon in the body that makes it possible to run, jump, climb stairs, and stand on your toes.
  • Tibialis posterior: This tendon attaches the calf muscle to the bones on the inside of the foot and supports the arch of the foot.
  • Tibialis anterior: This runs from the outer bone of the lower leg to the tarsals and first metatarsal which enables dorsiflexion.

Ligaments

Ligaments are fibrous connective tissues that connect bone to bone. These are the primary ligaments of the foot:

  • Plantar fascia: This is the longest ligament of the foot that runs from the heel to the toes to form the arch. The plantar fascia provides strength for walking and assists with balance.
  • Plantar calcaneonavicular: This is a ligament that connects the calcaneus to the talus. Its role is to support the head of the talus.
  • Calcaneocuboid: This is the ligament that connects the calcaneus to the tarsal bones. It helps the plantar fascia support the arch of the foot.

Recap

The foot is a complex structure comprised of bones (including the phalanges, metatarsals, tarsals, and calcaneus), muscles that enable flexion and extension, ligaments that connect bone to bone, and tendons (like the Achilles tendon) that connect bone to muscles.

Common Foot Problems

According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, the average person clocks in around 75,000 miles by age 50. Given how many moving parts there are in the foot, it's not surprising how vulnerable it is to injury or overuse.

common causes of foot pain

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Like any body part that's made up of bone, muscle, joints, and connective tissues, the feet are subject to a variety of medical problems, including:

  • Sprains and strains
  • Ruptured tendon or ligament
  • Bone fractures
  • Tendinitis (tendon inflammation)
  • Osteoarthritis ("wear-and-tear arthritis")
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (autoimmune arthritis)

Feet can also be affected by medical conditions such as diabetes, gout, athlete's foot, and onychomycosis (nail fungal infection).

Beyond these conditions, there are nine conditions specific to the foot that can cause pain, restrict the movement of the foot, or lead to foot instability.

Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is caused by microtears in the thick fibrous tissue on the underside of the foot, usually due to overstretching. Symptoms include pain in the heel and arch that is often worse in the mornings. Plantar fasciitis is common among-distance walkers or runners.

Bunions

A bunion is a bony protrusion on either the inside edge of the foot or the pinkie toe side. Bunions form when the bones in the foot become misaligned, often due to wearing shoes that don't fit well or that squeeze the toes together tightly.

The big toe can bend so far inward that it actually crosses under or over the adjacent toe, causing a secondary misalignment called a hammertoe. Usually, a painful callous will form on top of the second toe.

Flat Feet

Pes planus, or flat feet, is when the arc of the foot straightens out, often so completely that the entire sole comes in contact with the floor.

Flat feet can cause pain in the midfoot area as well as swelling of the ankle and arch. The imbalance can also lead to hip, knee, or lower back pain.

Pes planus can be congenital (meaning you are born with it), but more often it is a result of age or injury. Between 20% and 30% of people have some degree of flat-footedness.

Heel Spurs

As the largest bone in the foot, the calcaneus (heel) is prone to injury caused by faulty foot biomechanics (meaning problems with your gait).

One of the more common is the development of bony overgrowth called heel spurs that cause severe pain when standing or walking. Also known as calcaneal spurs, heel spurs are most common in people who have plantar fasciitis, flat feet, or high arches.

Mallet Toe

With a mallet toe, the joint in the middle of a toe becomes permanently bent to the extent that it points downward.

Mallet toes develop because of an imbalance in the muscles, tendons, or ligaments that hold the bones straight. As with bunions and hammertoe, mallet toe often forms as a result of wearing ill-fitting shoes, although it can also be caused by trauma or certain diseases.

Metatarsalgia

Metatarsalgia is pain under the ball of the foot. It is often the result of pressure caused by high heel shoes or from conditions such as arthritis, nerve compression, or fractures or tears in ligaments that support the ball of the foot.

Claw Toe

A claw toe is a deformity in which a toe bends downward from the middle joints and can sometimes even curl under the foot entirely. When this happens, callouses or corns will form on top of the affected toe. Sometimes, a corn can place pressure on nerves in the foot, causing pain.

Morton's Neuroma

This is a common problem in which compression on a nerve in the ball of the foot causes burning, tingling, and pain near the third and fourth toes. High heels are most often the culprit. Morton's neuroma can make you may feel like you have a pebble in your shoe or on a fold in your sock.

Recap

Among some of the more common structural problems exclusive to the foot are plantar fasciitis, bunions, hammertoes, pes planus (flat feet), heel spurs, mallet toes, claw toes, metatarsalgia, and Morton's neuroma.

Diagnosis

In order to diagnose problems related to the anatomical structures in the foot, a doctor—usually an orthopedic specialist—will examine your foot to look for signs of swelling, deformity, skin growths, or misalignment.

They will also review your symptoms and medical history and even ask you to walk around so that can look for abnormalities in your gait (referred to as a gait analysis)

Imaging tests are often central to the diagnosis. There are different types that may be used:

  • X-ray: This standard imaging test involves low-level reaction and is suitable for detecting things like bone fracture, dislocations, or arthritis damage.
  • Computed tomography (CT): This imaging technology combines multiple X-rays to create a more three-dimensional representation of the foot structure.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This imaging technique uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to create highly detailed images without radiation. It is especially good at imaging soft tissues.

Recap

Structural foot problems are typically diagnosed with a physical exam and a review of your symptoms and medical history. Imaging tests and a gait analysis may also be performed.

Treatment

The treatment for a foot problem will depend on the underlying cause.

Foot pain from any cause can often be relieved with over-the-counter painkillers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), or Aleve (naproxen). More severe cases may require steroid injections to reduce joint inflammation or prescription pain relievers like Celebrex (celecoxib) to relieve chronic arthritis pain.

For foot problems caused by anatomical deformities, foot orthotics (inserts worn inside the shoes) can help compensate for these problems and reduce pain. Standard versions are available in pharmacies, but often a doctor will order custom-made orthotics or custom-fitted shoes.

Physical therapy can improve the strength and flexibility of the feet and ankles. Sometimes conditions like bunions or hammertoe will require surgery if they are causing severe pain or disability.

Recap

Although the treatment of a structural foot problem can vary, it will often involve over-the-counter or prescription painkillers or anti-inflammatory drugs. Foot orthotics or custom-fitted shoes can help correct foot deformities. Physical therapy and surgery may be indicated for certain foot problems, particularly if they cause severe pain or disability.

Summary

The foot is a complex structure comprised of bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. It is vulnerable to injury both from trauma and overuse as well as diseases and infections. Among some of the more common structural foot problems are bunions, claw toes, flat feet, hammertoes, heel spurs, mallet toes, metatarsalgia, Morton's neuroma, and plantar fasciitis.

The diagnosis of a structural foot problem may involve a physical exam, a review of your symptoms and medical history, a gait analysis, and an imaging test such as an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan.

The treatment can vary based on the condition but may involve over-the-counter or prescription painkillers, foot orthotics, custom-fitted shoes, physical therapy, or surgery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the bottom of your foot called?

    The bottom of the foot is known as the sole. The padded area on the bottom of the foot is known as the plantar aspect.

  • What is the top of your feet called?

    The top of your foot above the arch is known as the instep. In medical terms, the top of the foot is the dorsum or dorsal region. The back of the hand is also known as the dorsal region.

Was this page helpful?
6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bito T, Tashiro Y, Suzuki Y, et al. Forefoot transverse arch height asymmetry is associated with foot injuries in athletes participating in college track events. J Phys Ther Sci. 2018;30(8):978–983. doi:10.1589/jpts.30.978

  2. Freedman BR, Gordon JA, Soslowsky LJ. The Achilles tendon: fundamental properties and mechanisms governing healing. Muscles Ligaments Tendons J. 2014;4(2):245–255. PMID: 25332943

  3. Tips to Keep Feet Warm and Cozy All Winter Long. Winter Foot Care. American Podiatric Association

  4. Petraglia F, Ramazzina I, Costantino C. Plantar fasciitis in athletes: diagnostic and treatment strategies. A systematic review. Muscles Ligaments Tendons J. 2017;7(1):107–118. doi:10.11138/mltj/2017.7.1.107

  5. Pita-Fernandez S, Gonzalez-Martin C, Alonso-Tajes F, et al. Flat Foot in a Random Population and its Impact on Quality of Life and Functionality. J Clin Diagn Res. 2017;11(4):LC22–LC27. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2017/24362.9697

  6. Park SY, Bang HS, Park DJ. Potential for foot dysfunction and plantar fasciitis according to the shape of the foot arch in young adults. J Exerc Rehabil. 2018;14(3):497–502. doi:10.12965/jer.1836172.086

Additional Reading