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Tarsal tunnel syndrome

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Tarsal tunnel syndrome, the lower extremity analogue analog of the far more common carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrist, is a condition that causes pain in the foot due to compression of the tibial nerve with the tarsal tunnel. The tarsal tunnel is located in the ankle behind the medial malleolus, superficial to the bones (calcaneus and talus) and covered by the flexor retinaculum. The  When the posterior tibial nerve courses through the tarsal tunnel, and can be compressed there. When this nerve is compressed, presenting symptoms include localized tenderness or pain, numbness and paresthesia in the areas supplied by the posterior tibial nerveparesthesias. Tarsal tunnel syndrome can caused by space occupying lesions (such as a ganglion cyst); it may also be caused by deformities of the foot and ankle that decrease the volume of the tarsal tunnel (, or stretch the nerve itself). Except in the case of a defined space-occupying lesion, treatment is almost always non-operative..  

Structure and function

The tarsal tunnel is the space located posterior and inferior to the medial malleolus; lateral to the calcaneus and talus, and medial to the flexor retinaculum.

The contents of the tarsal tunnel, from anterior to posterior, include the tibialis posterior tendon, the flexor digitorum longus tendon, the posterior tibial artery, tibial nerve, and flexor hallucis longus (Figure 1).  The   The tibial nerve divides within the tarsal tunnel into the calcaneal nerve coursing towards the heel and the medial and lateral plantar nerves which supply the bottom of the foot.

The flexor retinaculum covering the tunnel ensures that the contents of the tunnel remain in within it, but of course subjects these contents to may be a source of abnormal compression if the space anatomy is reduceddisturbed.

Tarsal tunnel is thought to differ from carpal tunnel syndrome in that in the ankle, direct extrinsic compression is less often the cause. Rather, repetitive traction, causing scarring of the segment of the nerve within the tarsal tunnel, can the source of symptomsbe caused by repetitive traction on the nerve leading to scarring. Of course, extrinsic compression from a bone spur or a ganglion, or synovial proliferation from a tendon disorder (as might be seen in the wrist as well) can be a cause as well. 

As pressure increases with the tarsal tunnel, blood flow decreases and the nerve becomes ischemic. Malfunction of the nerve, in turn, yield the presenting symptoms of tingling and numbness.


Patient presentation

Patients with tarsal tunnel syndrome typically complain of numbness in the foot radiating to the big toe and the first 3 toes, pain, burning, electrical sensations, and tingling over the base of the foot and the heel.  A broader area of symptoms suggest suggests either nerve entrapment proximal to the tarsal tunnel, or a generalized neuropathy.


Palpation over the tarsal tunnel will produce localized pain (tenderness) as well as a radiation into the sole of the foot.  This   This latter sensation is called a “Tinel’s sign”, though of course it this is not a true objective sign but a provoked and seemingly specific vocalized subjective symptom.  (Such symptoms, that are highly specific though still not objective signs, Specific, provoked symptoms on testing may be designated “wigns”–a by the neologism wigns”–a whined sign, so to speak.   See


Muscle atrophy and claw-toe deformities suggest chronic compression.

The physical exam should concentrate not only on establishing or excluding tarsal tunnel syndrome, but also conditions on the differential diagnosis (see below).  Thus, a complete neurovascular exam is mandatory.

Nerve conduction studies will often show a decreases in conduction velocity in the tibial nerve precisely as it courses under the flexor retinaculum.

Weightbearing Weight-bearing x-rays of the foot should be assessed to exclude fractures and bone spurs, as well as malalignment (for example, hindfoot varus or valgus) that can alter the geometry of the tarsal tunnel.

CT scans, ultrasound or MRI might be needed to rule out space-occupying lesions within the tarsal tunnel.  These   These include ganglions, lipomas, or (rarely) accessory muscles within the tarsal tunnel. Detection of a mass is critical, as unless and until it is removed, the patient is unlikely to improve. (By contrast, without a mass, surgery is rarely indicated.)



The true incidence of tarsal tunnel syndrome is difficult to determine given that the condition may be mistakenly labeled under some other heading.  The National Institutes of Health’s website on rare diseases says “The incidence and prevalence of tarsal tunnel syndrome is unknown.” ( Of course, the . The very fact that tarsal tunnel syndrome is considered included by the NIH to be “rare” on its list of “rare” conditions means that it affects fewer than 200,000 people in the United States.

Differential diagnosis

The differential diagnosis of tarsal tunnel syndrome can be consider to have two components. The first is the true differential diagnosis–that is, the list of condition that may instead be responsible for a presentation similar to that of tarsal tunnel syndrome. Beyond that, once the diagnosis is established, there is a second differential diagnosis list to consider, namely, the other conditions that may be responsible for causing the tarsal tunnel syndrome itself.

In the first category, the main considerations are lumbar radiculopathy and peripheral neuropathy (most often caused by diabetes). A complex regional pain syndrome (formerly known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy) could be responsible as well, though the finding findings in complex regional pain syndrome would almost certainly not be limited to the tibial would extend beyond the distribution of th etibial nerve.

Conditions that may be the cause of tarsal tunnel syndrome include trauma (fracture fragments causing compression or ligament injury causing instability and traction on the nerve); space occupying lesions such as ganglion cyst, benign tumors, swollen tendons or varicose veins; ankle deformities such as pes planus (flat foot).


There are no true “red flags” with tarsal tunnel syndrome, though the presentation of tarsal tunnel syndrome-like complaints may be the first sign clue of an otherwise undetected diagnosis of diabetes, peripheral artery disease or disc herniation/spinal stenosis.


Treatment options and outcomes

If the patient has confirmed tarsal tunnel syndrome caused by a space-occupying lesion, that offending structure should be removed. Beyond that, the vast majority of patients with tarsal tunnel syndrome can (and should) be treated non-operatively. Only with a prolonged failure of non-operative treatment in a patient with positive nerve conduction studies and severe symptoms should surgical release be considered.


The primary non-operative treatment


The primary approach to treating this condition tarsal tunnel syndrome is to attempt to decrease the repetitive traction injury across the nerve and the other structures in this area of the foot. In this regard, treatment is quite similar to that for acquired adult flatfoot deformity and plantar fasciitis.      

Comfort shoes designed to disperse the force more evenly across the foot can be very helpful. Weight loss should be recommended to patients who need it, though the futility of most weight loss programs to effect enduring change should temper the enthusiasm (and scolding tone) of the recommenderthose who make this recommendation.

A prefabricated orthotic with a supportive arch will help to disperse the force more evenly across the foot may also be helpful.

Physical therapy to establish exercise program characterized by appropriate fitness and stretching exercises, as well as some localized massage to help desensitize the area and perhaps breakdown scar may be of some benefit.  Stretching exercises Phystherapy with stretching exercises designed to stretch the calf muscle and thereby indirectly decrease the load through this area of the foot may also be helpful.

Limiting the patients walking can reduce symptoms but may impede weight loss (and be impractical for other reasons). It may be more effective to suggest limited Advice to limit standing, an activity which can produce symptoms with fewer health benefits than those involving motion, may be more apt

Corticosteroid injections may help to decrease the swelling around the nerve in the short and intermediate term. However, it is unclear what effect they have in the long term. In addition it is possible to injure the nerve during the injection process.

Operative treatment


can be considered in rare cases.  Primary resection of space occupying lesions causing isolated tarsal tunnel syndrome can relieve symptoms reliably (as long as , provided that the nerve is neither scarred nor damaged prior to surgery). Beyond that, operative treatment includes tarsal tunnel release and other procedures to correct deformity causing compression may be used.

Tarsal tunnel release comprises release of the flexor retinaculum and neurolysis of the tibial nerve and its branches. The latter includes removal of scar tissue, if any, as well as fascial releases.

There is limited evidence that surgery is effective.  One study in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery [] reported  44% good or excellent results reported  a 38% incidence of patients “clearly dissatisfied with the result and had no long-term relief of the pain.” Complications were seen in 13% of patients as well, including three wound infections.


Rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroidism and gout are thought to be associated with tarsal tunnel syndrome.



A helpful mnemonic for The anterior to posterior arrangement of the structures coursing through the tarsal tunnel (from anterior to posterior): “Tom, Dick, and very nervous Harry.” (Tibialis namely: the tibialis posterior tendon, the flexor Digitorum digitorum longus tendon, the posterior tibial Artery, posterior tibial Vein, tibial Nerve, flexor Hallucis longus tendon) artery and vein, the tibial nerve, and the flexor hallucis longus tendon) can be recalled with this mnemonic: “Tom, Dick, And Very Nervous Harry.” 


Key terms

Tarsal tunnel, posterior tibial nerve, pes planus, plantar fasciitis, tarsal tunnel release