Tarsal Coalition | Diagnosis & Treatments

How is tarsal coalition diagnosed?

The first step to treating your child’s tarsal coalition is to form a timely, complete, and accurate diagnosis. To diagnose your child’s condition, their doctor will conduct a physical exam. During the exam, the doctor will take your child’s complete prenatal, birth, and family medical history. They will also order standing x-rays as the initial imaging tool.

To confirm the diagnosis and give valuable information about the type of coalition, its location, and how the joints have been affected, either of the following diagnostic tests may be performed:

  • Computerized tomography scan (CT or CAT scan): Considered the gold standard for diagnosing tarsal coalitions, a CT scan is a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional horizontal and vertical images (called "slices") of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body — including bones, muscles, fat, and organs.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI is a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radio frequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body. This test is done to rule out any associated abnormalities of the spinal cord and nerves.

Images will probably be taken of both of your child’s feet, even if only one foot is painful. This is because sometimes the child can have the condition in both feet (bilateral), yet only one foot is painful.

How is tarsal coalition treated?

About 75 percent of children with tarsal coalition never need treatment. And of the 25 percent who do, up to one half don't need surgery.

Your child's physician will determine whether your child needs treatment and what that will be determined by based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • the extent of the condition
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition

Non-surgical treatments

The primary goal of conservative, non-surgical treatment is to reduce pain and muscle spasms by further reducing range of motion (immobilization) in the affected joint or joints. Treatments can include:

  • casts or walking boots
  • orthotics — special, custom-made shoe inserts that support affected joints
  • injection of an anesthetic and a steroid, such as cortisone, for temporary pain relief
  • anti-inflammatory medications
  • stretching and physical therapy

Surgical treatments

If your child's pain persists or recurs despite conservative measures, your child's doctor will probably recommend surgery.

  • The type of surgery depends on the type and location of the coalition, whether arthritis is involved, and, if it is, how extensive the arthritis is.
  • If there are no arthritic changes, the union between the bones is usually removed (resected), with fat or muscle placed where the tarsal coalition was so that normal range of motion can occur.
  • In more severe cases, surgery is aimed at limiting the range of motion in the joint that causes pain. In this instance, the surgery involves fusing affected joints to reduce pain.

After surgery, as part of the recovery process, a splint or cast, along with crutches, are used to immobilize the foot and keep the foot from bearing weight. Exercises to restore muscle tone and range of motion are encouraged as early as one to two weeks after surgery. Walking and full strengthening begins about one month after surgery.

Care after surgery

After surgery, your child will probably stay in the hospital overnight, and be given pain medication. They will wear a cast when they go home and will need to limit their weight-bearing activities for about a month. They may use crutches or a walker for a few weeks. At this point, therapy is aimed mostly at regaining range of motion and preventing the bone bridge (coalition) from reforming.

After about a month your child will transition into a walking boot and begin strengthening exercises. Physical therapy will help restore their muscle strength. They'll probably be able to resume full activities, including sports, after three to six months. However, a full recovery can take up to a year.

What is the long-term outlook for my child with tarsal coalition?

Only a small percentage of children with tarsal coalition need treatment for it. And one-third to one-half of those who need treatment can be treated without surgery.

Of those who are treated either non-surgically or surgically, about 75 percent become free from pain and do not have a recurrence of the condition.

There is a risk that the repaired joints or surrounding joints may develop arthritis later in your child’s life.