Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Dorsal Foot: How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count Your Tendons

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending the day with 20 of my students at Body Worlds exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago. It was a great day spent in the company of many wonderful students and friends, and it was unique opportunity to use real human specimens to discuss many of the structures we've covered in anatomy class.

My awesome students: Kris and her sister, Nick, Amanda, Lucas, Bryan, Paul A., Paul H., Matt, Vanessa, Leslie, Hali, Kristen, Jake, Sarah (not a student, but a fellow Anatomy instructor), Nate, Kirsten, Dustin, Aaron  

I have a real soft spot for the human foot-- particularly the dorsal side, where several superficial tendons can be seen just beneath the skin, sweeping gracefully across the convex arrangement of metatarsal and phalanges. So I experienced a particularly intense nerd buzz at Body Worlds when given the opportunity to explain these relationships using an actual human foot. We weren't allowed to touch the foot, but frantically stabbing my finger on the glass case in which it rested seemed to suffice. Talking about these structures while students listened (or pretended to listen) was really a lovely moment for me, so today's post is going to center on the remnants of that discussion.

So... first things first. There just aren't many visible muscles in the foot. There are several on the plantar surface (the bottom--the part that touches the ground) but they are not particularly defined or visible externally. The bones of the foot, especially the metatarsals, lie in a curved arrangement, so the basic structure of the foot is concave on the plantar side, convex on the dorsal (top) side. A few layers of muscles are nestled within the concavity on the plantar side, but they are obscured superficially by the plantar aponeurosis, a thin, flat tendinous covering that helps protect the underside of the foot. We can feel the soft tissue of the muscles through this aponeurosis (which is why the bottom of the foot is not bony) but we can really see much of their definition.

There are muscles on the dorsal side of the foot as well, but only a small portion of one of them shows clearly on the surface. More on that later. Most of what we can feel on the dorsal side of the foot is bone, and most of what we can see are tendons. The number of tendons we see depends on the position of the foot, but it ranges from one to seven. And there are a few other nice ones on the laterial and posterior sides of the ankle as well. How are there so many visible tendons on the foot ankle if we see so few muscles? Because the tendons we can see there come from muscles that are up higher, usually somewhere on the lower leg.

One of the easiest sets of muscle tendons to identify on the dorsal foot are those of extensor digitorum longus. That name means "long extensor of the digits." This muscle has four tendons, one each that inserts onto toes 2 through 5 and extends them. (Extension of the toes is kind of like curling them upward.) These tendons stand out clearly, sometimes even when the toes aren't extended. Sometimes we can also see the single extensor digitorum longus tendon up higher on the ankle-- before it has split into four separate tendons.

The presence of the word longus in a muscle name implies that there's a brevis, or shorter counterpart. (Brevis is Latin for "short" and it's the root of the English word "brief." We'll look at the extensor digitorum brevis muscle a little later.

(By the way, there is also a finger extensor in the forearm called extensor digitorum-- digitorum can be fingers or toes-- but there is no need for a longus or brevis qualifier in this name because there is only one extensor digitorum muscle up there.)

Another tendon that is easy to locate is that of the extensor hallucis longus muscle. Digiti hallicus is the Latin name for toe number 1 (or the big toe) so muscles that move it around often have the word hallucis in their names. The extensor hallicus longus tendon is also easy to find, as it insert on the dorsal side of the big toe and extends it upward. Like the other foot tendons, the muscle from which the extensor hallucis longus tendon originates is up on the lower leg. But the tendon can be seen surfacing anywhere from the anterior ankle all the way down to just before the big toe. The point at which it appears depends on the position of the big toe; the more it's extended, the more of the extensor hallucis longus muscle is visible.

Another visible tendon on the dorsal foot is that of tibialis anterior. It's easy to confuse the tibialis anterior tendon with the extensor hallucis longus tendon because they run side by side on the anterior ankle. What tends to confuse things more is the fact that the tibialis anterior tendon sometimes becomes less visible on the surface right at the point at which the extensor hallucis longus tendon begins to emerge! So we tend to see the end of one tendon and the beginning of another as just one long tendon. This is one of the most common mistakes made when drawing the feet.

In the image on the left, we can see both the tibialis anterior tendon and the extensor hallucis longus tendon. If they're mistaken for a single tendon, it's often because often tibialis anterior is disappearing just as extensor hallucis longus is emerging.

Below is a photo in which we can see almost all the tendons mentioned so far. In this case we can only see three of the four extensor digitorum longus tendons. The tendon that goes to the second digit tends to show less often than the other three (although I've included a leader line showing where it would be.) Notice also that the diameter of the tibialis anterior tendon much greater than that of the extensor hallucis longus tendon, and that, as mentioned above, the tibialis anterior tendon submerges and disappears just as the extensor hallucis longus tendon surfaces. We can also just barely see the great saphenous vein, which runs very superficially, just anterior to the medial malleolus of the tibia (which is the bony lump on the medial side of the ankle.)

Despite the great number of tendons dominating the landscape of the dorsal foot, one small muscle manages to peek through them. The extensor digitorum brevis muscle, as its name implies, is the shorter extensor muscle of the toes. It's so short, in fact, that the whole structure fits on top of the foot. It lies just deep to the tendons of extensor digitorum longus, and only the lateral most part of it shows on the surface.  

The extensor digitorum brevis muscle appears as a little lump just distal to the lateral malleolus of the fibula. In fact, it sometimes looks like another malleolus. But one gentle touch will tell you it's soft muscle tissue, not bone. I'm not sure its lovely shape would quite have inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but it adds, in its own odd way, a depth and breadth and height to the poetry of the human foot.

Thank you to my foot models. If you have requests for upcoming posts, I'm always happy to take suggestions!


  1. Umm, you had me at tend of extensor hallucis longus. I'm sure Going to see Body Worlds with you was awesome. I wish I could have been there.

  2. Dang touch screen keyboard...tendon of

  3. I wish you could have been there, too! There will be more field trips, possibly a cadaver lab trip in the fall. I will let you know!

  4. I've been remiss in blogging etiquette duties by finally linked... You might regret the people who come over... :)

  5. Ahh, you'd love to be in my position. I'm a medicine student and I dissect cadavers three times a week.

  6. So poetic, Kristin. That lumpy little mass of muscle (extensor digitorium brevis) is something new for me to tell my students about. You've added "Depth and breadth" to me knowledge.