Clubfoot describes a range of foot abnormalities usually present at birth (congenital) in which your baby's foot is twisted out of shape or position. In clubfoot, the tissues connecting the muscles to the bone (tendons) are shorter than usual. Clubfoot is a fairly common birth defect and is usually an isolated problem for an otherwise healthy newborn.
Clubfoot can be mild or severe. About half of children with clubfoot have it in both feet. If your child has clubfoot, it will make it harder to walk normally, so doctors generally recommend treating it soon after birth.
Doctors are usually able to treat clubfoot successfully without surgery, though sometimes children need follow-up surgery later on.
If your child has clubfoot, here's what it might look like:
- The top of the foot is usually twisted downward and inward, increasing the arch and turning the heel inward.
- The foot may be turned so severely that it actually looks as if it's upside down.
- The affected leg or foot may be slightly shorter.
- The calf muscles in the affected leg are usually underdeveloped.
Despite its look, clubfoot itself doesn't cause any discomfort or pain.
When to see a doctor
More than likely your doctor will notice clubfoot soon after your child is born, based on appearance. Your doctor can advise you on the most appropriate treatment or refer you to a doctor who specializes in bone and muscle problems (pediatric orthopedist).
The cause of clubfoot is unknown (idiopathic), but it may be a combination of genetics and environment.
Boys are about twice as likely to develop clubfoot than girls are.
Risk factors include:
- Family history. If either of the parents or their other children have had clubfoot, the baby is more likely to have it as well.
- Congenital conditions. In some cases, clubfoot can be associated with other abnormalities of the skeleton that are present at birth (congenital), such as spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't develop or close properly.
- Environment. Smoking during pregnancy can significantly increase the baby's risk of clubfoot.
- Not enough amniotic fluid during pregnancy. Too little of the fluid that surrounds the baby in the womb may increase the risk of clubfoot.
Clubfoot typically doesn't cause any problems until your child starts to stand and walk. If the clubfoot is treated, your child will most likely walk fairly normally. He or she may have some difficulty with:
- Movement. The affected foot may be slightly less flexible.
- Leg length. The affected leg may be slightly shorter, but generally does not cause significant problems with mobility.
- Shoe size. The affected foot may be up to 1 1/2 shoe sizes smaller than the unaffected foot.
- Calf size. The muscles of the calf on the affected side may always be smaller than those on the other side.
However, if not treated, clubfoot causes more-serious problems. These can include:
- Arthritis. Your child is likely to develop arthritis.
- Poor self-image. The unusual appearance of the foot may make your child's body image a concern during the teen years.
- Inability to walk normally. The twist of the ankle may not allow your child to walk on the sole of the foot. To compensate, he or she may walk on the ball of the foot, the outside of the foot or even the top of the foot in severe cases.
- Problems stemming from walking adjustments. Walking adjustments may prevent natural growth of the calf muscles, cause large sores or calluses on the foot, and result in an awkward gait.
Because doctors don't know what causes clubfoot, you can't completely prevent it. However, if you're pregnant, you can do things to limit your baby's risk of birth defects, such as:
- Not smoking or spending time in smoky environments
- Not drinking alcohol
- Avoiding drugs not approved by your doctor