With the Super Bowl just around the corner, it’s a prime time to discuss common foot and ankle pathology due to the physicality of the sport. I know first-hand of the potential risks because I first played the sport when involved in pee wee league. I went on to play in both high school and at the college level and have had my share of sports-related injuries. As a foot and ankle specialist, I now see many of these same injuries in my office.
A very common football injury and actually the most common of all sports-related injuries is the inversion ankle sprain. This involves the foot being turned inwards toward the midline of the body, which causes strain and can even tear the ligaments on the outside of the ankle joint. I see this injury often in my office, especially with wide receivers. If not promptly diagnosed and properly immobilized this can lead to permanent ankle instability which may often require extensive physical therapy and sometimes surgery. If the foot is forced outward and ankle inward this can lead to a much worse ankle injury called a high ankle sprain or “Syndesmotic” injury. This can keep a player out for almost an entire season as the damage occurs directly to the ligament which holds the two lower leg bones together. Any bodyweight placed on the foot causes the bones to split apart, causing severe pain. In 2011, Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburg Steelers QB, had this exact injury and it was detrimental to his entire season.
Another common injury is turf toe, caused from either hyperflexion or hyperextension of the big toe joint, typically caused from a player being tackled from behind with their forefoot planted into the ground. This causes strain along the medial and lateral ligaments which hold the joint in place and can be a devastating injury as ligament damage often requires extensive immobilization. Terrell Owens sustained this injury in the prime of his career and was sidelined for several weeks.
Lastly, a common fracture I see involving the fifth metatarsal and is known as a Jones Fracture. This injury causes pain and swelling along the outside of the midfoot. It occurs when the ankle is plantar flexed and there is lateral force on the forefoot, usually occurring when the ball carrier tries to spin around a tackler. Any bone fracture normally takes about 6-8 weeks to heal so players typically lose half of the season. Dez Bryant, the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver lost the majority of the 2016 season due to a Jones fracture.
Due to the wide range and severity of lower extremity football injuries, I highly recommend if there is any foot and ankle pain after or during a game, a proper physical exam and possible imaging may be needed for a diagnosis. Doing so will increase the chance a player can return to the field as soon as possible and get back to playing the most popular sport in America.