by Dr. Bo Babenko, DPT
Playing the piano with your feet seems pretty dangerous, but being able to do so drastically reduces your injury risk. (What!?)
If you cannot move your big toe without the other four moving, or vice versa, this could be a problem. Our feet are the foundation of our bodies. When I see hip, knee or even back pain, my first stop is frequently the feet. The resultant pain at the knee, hip or low back is often just a signal of which structure is currently taking the biggest beating.
The foot and ankle have over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. A lot of these muscles tend to be much less active in our modern world since we spend very little time barefoot and place very little demand on these tissues. Our muscles capabilities are dependent on a principle called SAID – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands – meaning what you repeatedly ask your muscles to do, is how they will respond (i.e. Use It or Lose It). Just like putting a cast over a broken bone, shoes on feet results in muscle atrophy, as those foot muscles are no longer being asked to do their job. To illustrate this point, imagine what would happen to your dexterity if you wore mittens every day for the next twenty years.
While losing muscle mass and neuro-muscular skill, we lose the overall capacity of the feet as well. You can think of “capacity” as the ability to do work or tolerate certain conditions. This is important because the mechanism for injuries of the body is pretty simple: Each area has a certain “capacity,” if that capacity is over-loaded (by the amount of work done or adverse conditions), boom, injury happens. For example, when an ankle “rolls,” and a sprain occurs, it is because the load, your body weight, exceeded the capacity of those tissues in that specific position.
So then, how do we prevent muscle loss and neuro-muscular decline, improve the capacity of our feet, and in the process, bullet-proof ourselves from our foundation up?
- Simple exercises to get the muscles stronger are a good start (see the picture below).
- Spending more time barefoot will automatically get more of those muscles excited and stronger as well.
- And finding the best pair of shoes for your feet is also a great way to get more out of your feet. (A trained clinician who understands the body may be a better choice than a shoe salesman. Sorry, Al Bundy.)
In pain science, we find time and time again that the more aware you are of an area and the more fine control you have over it, the less likely it is to have an injury. So get cracking on the exercises below. You may never be a concert pianist with your hands — let alone feet — but training the feet like you aspire to be one is a great way to stay pain and injury free!