Sensorimotor control of foot function: Adapting the mechanical function of the foot to optimise balance and gait performance (2016–2019)
Our feet are burdoned with immense load in our daily lives, and as such, are commonly a source of physiological ailment. In Australia, one in five community dwelling adults report foot pain that impairs both physical function and quality of life, with the prevalence of foot pain increasing with age and being associated with balance impairment and increased risk of falls in the elderly. Despite the importance of feet for balance and upright gait, our understanding of how feet function has been considerably limited. Recently, my research has provided a substantial leap in our understanding, providing novel evidence that the intrinsic foot muscles, a group of small muscles located deep within the arch of the foot, continuously adapt the biomechanical behaviour of the foot in response to variations in force and balance requirements. This new discovery highlights the importance of the intrinsic muscles in balance and gait and also provides explanation for why weakness or dysfunction of these muscles has been linked to many musculoskeletal disorders of the lower limb and also an increased risk of falls in the elderly. However, at present there is no information about how the nervous system controls the function of the intrinsic foot muscles in order to maintain balance, or whether their function can be modified to improve foot health. This research will examine how the brain and spinal cord integrate sensory feedback and muscle activation in response to loading and balance challenges, providing a comprehensive understanding of the role of the foot in balance and locomotion. These findings will also be used to directly inform strategies for enhancing foot function and ultimately reducing injury and pain in this important part of the body.