What is tendon transfer surgery in the foot?

Doctors may recommend tendon transfer surgery for someone with nerve damage. That damage keeps the tendons in your foot or ankle from moving correctly. To understand why it's so important, it helps to understand how tendons work.

Tendons are a powerhouse in your body. They're connective tissues that attach your muscles to bones. They help move the structure or bone. They rely on nerves to signal them. Once they receive the signal, they work with the muscle to get your body moving.

In this operation, doctors replace a tendon that's not working with another working tendon from somewhere else in your body or from a donor. Many of your muscles perform overlapping functions. So, your doctor can take a tendon from one area and transfer it to your foot or ankle without any loss of function. Once the new tendon attaches to the bone and muscle, the nerve signals can tell the tendons when to move, flex and tense.

What to expect from tendon transfer surgery in the foot

Depending on the location of the tendon and the severity of your situation, your doctor might perform the surgery while you're awake with local anesthetic. Or, they might give you mild sedation or general anesthesia. When the surgery starts, the doctor cuts into your skin and locates the tendon of the muscle performing overlapping functions. Depending on the injury, they may remove the tendon that's not working or sew the transfer tendon right onto it. The incision gets stitched closed. 

You can expect to wear a cast or splint on your ankle for the first one to two months after the operation. This allows the new tendon to heal in its new spot. You might also go to physical therapy. There, you do exercises to restore movement.

Common foot conditions requiring tendon transfer surgery

If you have a condition that causes you to lose your normal tendon or muscle function, you may benefit from this procedure. Examples include:

  • Tendinitis
  • Birth defects
  • Nerve injuries
  • Ankle sprains and strains
  • Muscle injuries from trauma or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Foot drop, a problem where you can't raise your foot up anymore
  • Neuromuscular disorders like cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury or stroke

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