Putting the Foot in Football: Why every football player should have a Podiatrist
For many decades, foot and ankle injuries have been highly prevalent in both elite and community-level athletes in the Australian Football League (AFL). As a footballer and podiatrist, I’ve seen the significant impact foot-related pathologies have on both players and their respective teams. Podiatrists are foot and ankle experts, and therefore, our profession can be an extremely useful tool to improve outcomes for footballers in injury prevention and management. By the end of this blog, I hope you understand the importance and value podiatry can add to improving foot and ankle health in the football community.
What is podiatrists' current role in football?
Currently, some football clubs at the community level do not currently have podiatrists to help assist with podiatric needs, with a small range of clubs having sponsorships or good referral networks with private clinics. Most AFL/AFLW clubs will have a podiatrist who attends the club on a weekly-fortnightly basis, however, this can create barriers to management plans due to limited appointment availabilities. Therefore, the limited access to podiatry services in the community and AFL/AFLW football can hinder the treatment of foot and ankle injuries. In 2016, Fortington and colleagues concluded lower limb injuries make up 55% of football injuries, with 12% of injuries being related to the foot and ankle. With foot and ankle injuries being so prevalent, this is where the role of increasing podiatry in the AFL/AFLW setting, can help prevent and manage these conditions.
Football involves many forms of human movement, including explosive plyometric movements as well as high running volumes and speeds. As a result, our feet are exposed to high amounts of load, and therefore, our feet require a strong capacity to keep up with the demands of the sport, from pre-season until finals. This highlights the importance of the athlete's preparation during preseason and maintenance throughout the season. This is where podiatric assessment is imperative to establish the footballer's capacity to attenuate training and match loads. Podiatrists have the tools to measure key elements including ankle range of motion, foot and ankle strength, as well as tissue capacity. This provides us with baseline information, and therefore, a management plan can be developed to improve performance on the football field and reduce the risk of injury.
What types of conditions do we see commonly in AFL/AFLW footballers?
Podiatrists working in AFL will treat a range of injuries, including acute and chronic foot and ankle injuries, running-related and overuse injuries, as well as footwear-induced pathologies. Some common examples include lateral ankle sprains, achilles tendinopathy, plantar heel pain, and medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS). Podiatric conditions also extend to dermatological conditions, including skin pathologies and nail trauma-related injuries such as ingrown toenails, blisters, and fungal infections.
How do podiatrists manage these conditions?
This leads us to the next part of our discussion, as to WHAT can the podiatrist do to provide the best management plans for footballers and their injuries. In podiatry we emphasize on education, so footballers understand their pathology and the management strategies in place to transition them back to the football field. Podiatrists are qualified to help you rehabilitate foot and ankle conditions with strength and conditioning programs, much like physiotherapists. We also have access to iPads and strength testing software, to assess walking and running gait analysis and tissue capacity. This helps the practitioner and patient understand the biomechanical variables, including internal and external loads associated with specific pathologies. When indicated, podiatrists can prescribe custom foot orthoses to help offload soft tissue structures for runners and football boots. Other manual therapies such as shockwave therapy, dry needling, and soft tissue mobilisation can be used by podiatrists to help manage conditions when indicated. Podiatrists can also provide education and advice regarding football boots and running shoe selection. For dermatological pathologies, podiatrists can provide nail and skin care treatments including callus debridement, blister management strategies, and removal of ingrown toenails.
Our foot and ankle strength is imperative to preventing injuries and improving performance in footballers, and this is where podiatry management can have a significant impact. For those affected by foot and ankle injuries or pathologies, I would encourage footballers or parents of footballers to support a local podiatrist near their club. It’s my goal as a podiatrist to see more local football clubs to create great referral networks, and therefore work together to help more footballers.
Written by Addy Barrett - Sports Podiatrist at Melbourne Podiatry Clinic