Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Curious Tale of Morton’s Neuroma, Pt. II

Finally here it is, the second part of the tale about my bad foot.

If you haven’t read the first part, go here.

Today I want to talk about something that I find ultimately more interesting: the process of diagnosing a Morton’s neuroma. Morton’s neuroma is described by one podiatrist as a “perineural fibrosis, sort of a misplaced overgrown protective ‘scar’ tissue surrounding and compressing an otherwise normal nerve.”

Here’s the fascinating part of making the diagnosis, which really got my mind whirring when I fully realized the implications:

Morton’s neuroma is typically a diagnosis of exclusion.

So a podiatrist will check for multiple issues when the patient complains of ball-of-the-foot pain. Is there swelling? A bone fracture? A possible tear in the plantar plate? Etc., etc.

If nothing is found, many doctors will diagnose the problem as Morton’s neuroma. But it’s important to appreciate why: Probably not because there is definitely evidence of a neuroma, but because all other suspects were eliminated. So you may have capsulitis or some difficult-to-detect issue. But the diagnosis: Morton’s neuroma.

If this sounds familiar to a knee pain sufferer, there’s a reason. Patellofemoral pain syndrome is a similar kind of diagnosis, in a way. If your knee doesn’t have a clear structural problem, if an orthopedist can’t figure out what the issue is, you may be told you have patellofemoral pain syndrome. But notice my qualifying phrase “in a way” -- Morton’s neuroma is actually more dangerous as a catch-all diagnosis because it purports not to be one. In other words, it claims to know what the underlying problem is (unlike the infuriatingly vague “patellofemoral pain syndrome”).

My first diagnosis was made by a podiatrist using an ultrasound. He showed me the fat nerve and his diagnosis seemed like a slam dunk. There was the evidence, on a medical imaging device. Not until a year and a half later did I ask a general physician, “How can you tell the difference between a neuroma and a nerve that’s simply inflamed because you’re injured?” His reply to me:

You can’t.

Wow. That was a revelation.

If Morton’s neuroma is a diagnosis of exclusion for many podiatrists, it almost surely is overdiagnosed because of that alone. Further, here are five more reasons to believe it is overdiagnosed.

* Podiatrists, in reflective moments, are themselves wondering as much. Check out this long online discussion between foot doctors that was prompted by one’s question, “Am I overdiagnosing Morton’s neuroma?”

* Some aren’t even wondering: they’re pretty sure they know. Listen to this comment: “It has been my experience in 44 years of practice that this is the most overdiagnosed foot malady. In the years that I have been in practice I have found no more then 10 true neuromas.” Think about that -- that’s about one case every four and a half years.

* Follow the money: extracting a “neuroma” is a surgical procedure that probably pays well. Might this influence doctors, especially those trained to remove neuromas, to find more of these than otherwise?

* There are various comments online about about surgeons cutting open a foot to find a “no roma” or a very small neuroma, or about surgeries that fail to end the patient’s pain, or about neuromas that podiatrists say “grew back,” which doesn’t even make sense.

* Also you’ll find a number of people online who claim to have “healed” from their neuromas. This strikes me as implausible for a true neuroma. Once you have scar tissue hindering a nerve in your foot, I don’t see how it can just disappear, though of course you can take pressure off the nerve for temporary relief. But heal? If you healed, I’m betting you had some other issue.

As for what was wrong with my foot, I don’t know. I’ll probably never know. I did have a long period of the nerve being irritated, so it’s possible the nerve did change in some way. But I don’t think that was my main problem.

Anyway, the important thing is, thankfully I’m no longer contemplating neuroma surgery!

Update: The question was asked below how I healed my “neuroma.” I didn’t get into that originally, as this blog is “Saving My Knees,” not “Saving My Feet,” and most people who drop by aren’t that interested in foot pain issues.

But in brief, I did the following:
(1) Tried to avoid activities that stressed my foot.
This is kind of obvious, but worth mentioning. So, for instance, I tried not to stand around too long on the bad foot.
(2) Put better padding (Spenco insoles) in some of my shoes.
(3) Modified my cycling shoes and socks. This may have helped a fair bit. I cut a slit in the side of the right shoe, to relieve the pressure. Also I “faked up” a cycling sock. They tend to be tight, so I cut a comfortable white athletic sock off at the low ankle to make it look like a cycling sock.
(4) Modified my other walking shoes. I actually cut holes out of the side of them at first (to copy someone on the Internet who did this). But then I realized – d’oh – all you have to do is cut a slit in the side; it accomplishes the same thing without looking so ugly.
(5) Modified my dress socks. I actually stretched them out overnight on the end posts of exercise equipment so they wouldn’t be so tight.
(6) Bought new footwear. This, I think,  was important. I bought some Altra Instinct 2 Zero Drop sneakers to walk to work in (very wide toe box, great cushioning, and zero drop too of course) and to wear on weekends. Also bought some Crocs. Fell in love with the Altras; they are superb.

I also used Hapad pads for a while, but toward the end (the period when real healing took off), I wasn’t using them, as they got hard to position exactly right and tended to annoy my foot.


  1. Interesting experience for sure Richard, thank you for sharing. It seems as though many diagnoses are made by process of elimination. I often think this is due to so many factors: the body is extremely complex and intrigue it is hard to pin-point exact sources of pain/disease/etc, more patients than there are doctors.. not enough time to properly diagnosis, and perhaps Western society expects quick fixes/pills/surgeries to solve all things.

    So, I am curious what steps did you take to improve your foot health?

  2. I'm beginning to give more and more credence to the idea that pain roves around our bodies as an expression of often quite mild emotional stress. It's like your subconscious is a naughty child trying to get your attention. Poke him in the foot now! You can get an MRI done and they will try and find something and categorise it but is it really abnormal compared to someone else of the same age? Pain science is a fascinating area. Its just a further extension of your scepticism about biomechanics being the cause of problems. Take it a step further. Neither biomechanics nor tissue damage is the cause of chronic pain (as opposed to acute). I'm not fully convinced of this yet but I'm experimenting with the thesis!

  3. Great to hear that you were able to resolve the problem without resorting to surgery.