Extensor Hallucis Longus and Extensor Digitorum Longus: Learn Your Muscles

Let’s simplify these names before we go any further. In this case, extensor means to lift. Hallucis is the medical word for the big toe, and digitorum is the word that refers to the other four toes. Longus means that this is the long version of the muscle, as opposed to the short, which would be brevis. So, when we’re talking about extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus, we’re talking about our toes!

More than that, the extensor hallucis longus and extensor digitorum longus are important muscles at the ankle. They control whether we step on the outside, inside, or center of our foot as we take a step. Also, as their name implies, they are instrumental in helping us lift our midfoot from the ankle. This activity shows up every time you take a step, but it’s particularly obvious when you’re walking uphill.

Location

Extensor hallucis longus originates on the middle half of the anterior surface of fibula and interosseous membrane, which is the fibrous tissue between the tibia and fibula. Extensor digitorum longus additionally originates from the lateral condyle (the upper outer part) of the tibia.

Extensor Digitorum Longus and Extensor Hallucis Longus
Thanks to slideplayer.com for the image.

This means that the entirety of the origin for extensor hallucis longus is shared with extensor digitorum longus. The opposite cannot be said, though, becasue extensor digitorum longus is a longer muscle. Therefore, its origin encompasses and exceeds the origin of extensor hallucis longus.

Extensor hallucis longus inserts on the distal phalanx of the big toe. Extensor digitorum longus inserts on the phalanges of the other four toes.

Function

The extensor hallucis longus extends big toe. This means that it is the muscle that helps you lift your big toe. Also, it dorsiflexes and inverts foot at ankle joint. When you dorsiflex your foot at the ankle, you lift your toes and the ball of your foot off the floor while keeping your heel grounded. Inversion is when the sole of your foot rotates toward the midline of your body. When you invert at the ankle, you are standing with more weight on the outside edge of your foot.

The extensor digitorum longus extends the other four toes. This means that the four toes (not including your big toe) are all connected. Try it. When you try to lift say, your third toe, its neighbors will also lift. That’s because they’re all controlled by the same muscle. Additionally, the extensor digitorum longus dorsiflexes and everts foot at ankle. When you evert at the ankle, you are standing with more weight on the arches of your foot.

Common Dysfunction

If you find that it’s difficult to get your toes properly lifted for activities like walking upstairs or walking up a hill, this could be a symptom of extensor hallucis longus or extensor digitorum longus dysfunction. Similarly, if you find that your weight falls either to the outside or inside of your foot, these muscles could be the culprits.

Frequently, the main cause for dysfunction is if the tendon gets bruised or injured when someone steps on your toe. A toe injury may seem very trivial, but these muscles control movements at the ankle. An injury to either of these muscles can cause dysfunctional movement at the toe or ankle joint.

Restoring or Maintaining Health

Any time you think you may have a significant injury, the best course of action is always to go see your doctor. Your doctor can order imaging, therapy, and medicine to help you heal quickly. Remember, too, any muscle can be torn or sprained.

If you think you may simply have tight or weak muscles, try using your hands to massage the tops of your feet and stretch the tight muscles. For example, if your toes seem to stay lifted, use your hands to gently try to encourage them to point down. You can also use your thumbs and try to massage the spot between the tibia and fibula.

Take a look at an old shoe or a flip flop that you’ve been wearing. Check out your wear pattern. If you have created a heavy imprint either to the inside or outside of the sole, work on creating a neutral standing position at the ankle. Roll to the outsides of your feet, and roll back to a perfect neutral. Now, roll toward your arches, and roll back to neutral. Do this several times so that your body gets used to finding neutral position at the ankle.

More Information

I consulted The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey. Recently, the book was revised and is in its third edition. For some reason, the Amazon link wouldn’t pull up for this newest edition, but it is available on Amazon.

Also, I consulted my Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards. If you’re really enjoying anatomy and are wanting a tool to help you locate specific muscles correctly, I highly recommend these flash cards. I turn to them any time a client comes in with pain.

Here’s a link to buy them on Amazon. If you purchase them from this link, I earn a small commission.

Have you ever injured your extensor hallucis longus or extensor digitorum longus? What did you do to recover? Let us know in the comments.

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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