The metatarsal bones, also known as the metatarsals, are a set of five bones in the foot which articulate with the ankle joint and the toes. The ligaments which surround these bones typically hold them in an arch-like shape which comprises the arch of the foot. The metatarsals are equivalent to the metacarpal bones, a set of similar bones which are found in the hands. Both sets of bones serve important functions in the body, providing balance, stability, and functionality.
These bones are numbered from one to five, starting with the big toe and working outwards. Each metatarsal bone articulates with a specific toe, and joins with part of the ankle joint. The ankle joint, also known as the tarsus, is a collection of bones which articulate together to allow people to rotate their feet in a variety of directions. The cuneiform and cuboid bones in the tarsus connect to the metatarsal bones.
One of the most common types of injuries to the metatarsal bones is a stress fracture, which usually appears in athletes who have been training too hard. Athletes can also break their metatarsal bones, with football players in particular being prone to this type of injury. In addition to being painful, fractures are also debilitating, because it is unwise to walk on the foot until the fracture has healed.
For a mild stress fracture, a patient may simply wear supportive shoes and avoid heavy work until the fracture is resolved. More serious stress fractures can require more aggressive treatment such as complete rest and specially fitted booties which stabilize the bone while it heals. True fractures may require surgery to pin the bone so that it will remain stable during the healing process, with a minimum of six weeks off the foot.
Once metatarsal fractures heal, people must gradually strengthen their feet. Resuming prior activity levels can damage the bone, making it important to follow a physical therapy program which is designed to gently reintroduce the metatarsal bones to physical stress. This plan can include stretching and toning exercises for the feet, along with gentle exercise which allows the body to build up strength.
Injuries to the metatarsal bones can be identified with symptoms such as pain, bruising, and swelling. People who develop pain in their feet should definitely seek medical attention, as if the pain is related to a fracture, it is important to get treatment early. Untreated fractures can create infections in the feet, or heal improperly and impair the patient's movement.