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Fellow Level Foot and Ankle Exam Techniques

Physical exam of the foot and ankle is an important skillset for any physician. Like many other physical exam techniques in orthopedics, learning how to properly examine takes years to cultivate and master. However, we all must start with the basics as we start our training. The following six physical exam techniques will help get you off on the right foot.

Sub-talar rocking

The sub-talar joint is frequently neglected in medical education. The sub-talar joint is also known as the talocalcaneal joint. The sub-talar joint can develop degenerative changes that can lead to ankle pain. The talocalcaneal joint translates with the hindfoot during inversion and eversion (1). In order to assess the motion of the talocalcaneal joint, you should first grasp the calcaneus with one hand and the forefoot with the other. Then, the ankle is placed in neutral dorsiflexion (1). Subtalar motion should then be assessed by rocking it laterally and medially. A positive test would be a restriction in the range of motion. We typically expect more inversion than eversion (1).
subtalar test ankle exam

Image 1. Sub-talar motion [10]

Too many toes sign

An acquired flat foot deformity occurs due to posterior tibialis tendon degeneration (2). When evaluating a foot for hindfoot deformity, the too many toes sign can be used. While standing behind a patient, the physician needs to see how many toes are visible on the lateral portion of the foot. A positive test occurs when there is excessive forefoot abduction, giving the examiner the ability to see the third, fourth, and fifth phalanx. In a foot without an acquired flat foot deformity, or pes planus, only one or two of the lateral toes should be seen (6). The too many toes sign can also be seen in a patient with pes planus, so it is important to check both feet to see if there is asymmetry between them to suggest an acquired deformity in one foot (6).
too many toes sign ankle exam

Image 2. The too many toes sign [6]

External rotation stress test

There are many tests that aid in diagnosing a high ankle sprain. The role of physical exam tests for a high ankle sprain is to assess if there has been an injury to the syndesmotic ligaments. A positive external rotation stress test has been associated with longer recovery times in patients compared to lateral ankle sprains (11). The external rotation stress test is done with the patient seated and their legs hanging off the tables with their knee bent to 90 degrees (3). The tibia should be secured, but not the fibula. The ankle is then externally rotated and a positive test is pain and separation at the distal tibiofibular joint (3, 7).
external rotation test ankle exam

Image 3. External rotation stress test [7]

Squeeze test

Another special test looking for a high ankle sprain is the squeeze test. To perform a squeeze test, the patient is seated with his knees hanging off of the table at 90 degrees (3). Then, the provider should externally squeeze the mid calf at the area above the midpoint of the calf (3). A positive test is pain at the level of the ankle. Pain would suggest a syndesmotic injury (7). Compared to the external rotation stress test, the squeeze test has a lower specificity (7).
squeeze test ankle high ankle sprain

Image 4. Squeeze test [7]

Talar tilt

The talar tilt test is used when evaluating for injury to the calcaneofibular and anterior talofibular ligament (6). One hand is used to stabilize the distal tibia and the other hand grasps the patient’s heel. The patient’s ankle is then stressed with a varus force in order to assess for ligament laxity (6). Both ankles should be assessed and a difference greater than 10 degrees would be a positive test (6).
talar tilt test ankle exam

Image 5. Talar tilt test [6]

Anterior drawer

The anterior drawer test helps to determine ligament laxity in lateral ankle sprains. The patient should be seated with their legs hanging off the table at 90 degrees (9). One hand will grasp the patient’s heel and plantar flex the ankle to 10 degrees (9). The other hand will be holding the distal portion of the tibia (9). Gentle translation forward is applied to the heel. The physician is evaluating for a dimple to appear just anterior to the lateral malleolus, which would suggest a rupture of the anterior talofibular ligament (9).
anterior drawer test of the ankle

Image 6. Anterior drawer test [9]

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