Nonlinear finite element analysis of the plantar fascia due to the windlass mechanism

Background: Tightening of plantar fascia by passively dorsiflexing the toes during walking has functional importance. The purpose of this research was to evaluate the influence of big toe dorsiflexion angles upon plantar fascia tension (the windlass effect) with a nonlinear finite element approach.

Materials and methods: A two-dimensional finite element model of the first ray was constructed for biomechanical analysis. In order to imitate the windlass effect and to evaluate the mechanical responses of the plantar fascia under various conditions, 12 model simulations–three dorsiflexion angles of the big toe (45 degrees, 30 degrees, and 15 degrees), two plantar fascia properties (linear, nonlinear), and two weightbearing conditions (with body weight, without body weight)–were designed and analyzed.

Results: Our results demonstrated that nonlinear modeling of the plantar fascia provides a more sophisticated representation of experimental data than the linear one. Nonlinear plantar fascia setting also predicted a higher stress distribution along the fiber directions especially with larger toe dorsiflexion angles (45 degrees>30 degrees>15 degrees). The plantar fascia stress was found higher near the metatarsal insertion and faded as it moved toward the calcaneal insertion.

Conclusion: Passively dorsiflexing the big toe imposes tension onto the plantar fascia. Windlass mechanism also occurs during stance phase of walking while the toes begin to dorsiflex. From a biomechanical standpoint, the plantar fascia tension may help propel the body upon its release at the point of push off.

Clinical relevance: A controlled stretch via dorsiflexing the big toe may have a positive effect on treating plantar fasciitis by providing proper guidance for collagen regeneration. The windlass mechanism is also active during the stance phase of walking when the toes begin to dorsiflex.

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