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Keywords:

  • Achilles tendon;
  • fasciacyte;
  • hyaluronan;
  • paratenon;
  • plantar aponeurosis;
  • plantar fascia;
  • plantar fasciitis

Abstract

Although the plantar fascia (PF) has been studied quite well from a biomechanical viewpoint, its microscopic properties have been overlooked: nothing is known about its content of elastic fibers, the features of the extracellular matrix or the extent of innervation. From a functional and clinical standpoint, the PF is often correlated with the triceps surae muscle, but the anatomical grounds for this link are not clear. The aim of this work was to focus on the PF macroscopic and microscopic properties and study how Achilles tendon diseases might affect it. Twelve feet from unembalmed human cadavers were dissected to isolate the PF. Specimens from each PF were tested with various histological and immunohistochemical stains. In a second stage, 52 magnetic resonance images (MRI) obtained from patients complaining of aspecific ankle or foot pain were analyzed, dividing the cases into two groups based on the presence or absence of signs of degeneration and/or inflammation of the Achilles tendon. The thickness of PF and paratenon was assessed in the two groups and statistical analyses were conducted. The PF is a tissue firmly joined to plantar muscles and skin. Analyzing its possible connections to the sural structures showed that this fascia is more closely connected to the paratenon of Achilles tendon than to the Achilles tendon, through the periosteum of the heel. The PF extended medially and laterally, continuing into the deep fasciae enveloping the abductor hallucis and abductor digiti minimi muscles, respectively. The PF was rich in hyaluronan, probably produced by fibroblastic-like cells described as ‘fasciacytes’. Nerve endings and Pacini and Ruffini corpuscles were present, particularly in the medial and lateral portions, and on the surface of the muscles, suggesting a role for the PF in the proprioception of foot. In the radiological study, 27 of the 52 MRI showed signs of Achilles tendon inflammation and/or degeneration, and the PF was 3.43 ± 0.48 mm thick (99%CI and SD = 0.95), as opposed to 2.09 ± 0.24 mm (99%CI, SD = 0.47) in the patients in which the MRI revealed no Achilles tendon diseases; this difference in thickness of 1.29 ± 0.57 mm (99%CI) was statistically significant (P < 0.001). In the group of 27/52 patients with tendinopathies, the PF was more than 4.5 mm thick in 5, i.e. they exceeded the threshold for a diagnosis of plantar fasciitis. None of the other 25/52 paitents had a PF more than 4 mm thick. There was a statistically significant correlation between the thicknesses of the PF and the paratenon. These findings suggest that the plantar fascia has a role not only in supporting the longitudinal arch of the foot, but also in its proprioception and peripheral motor coordination. Its relationship with the paratenon of the Achilles tendon is consistent with the idea of triceps surae structures being involved in the PF pathology, so their rehabilitation can be considered appropriate. Finally, the high concentration of hyaluronan in the PF points to the feasibility of using hyaluronan injections in the fascia to treat plantar fasciitis.