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MRI of tarsal coalition: frequency, distribution, and innovative signs.


Objective: Tarsal coalition is uncommon, but not rare. Since it may present with chronic symptoms and since prior studies have shown that magnetic resonance (MR) has a high accuracy for diagnosis, we evaluated the prevalence, frequency, location, and types of coalition, as well as secondary signs, as seen in a large clinical MR population. Subjects and Methods: Initially a "word search" program was used to find all diagnoses of "tarsal coalition" in our RIS database as part of 27,483 ankle MRIs performed over a ten-year period. We revaluated 101 of 169 identified cases for location (calcaneonavicular vs. talocalcaneal/subtalar) and type (osseous, cartilaginous, or fibrous, utilizing previously described MR criteria) of coalition. Additional imaging findings, including marrow edema and fractures, and associated secondary signs, such as talar "beaks," the "anteater" (hyperplastic anterior calcaneal process) sign, and the innovative "reverse anteater" (hyperplastic navicular) and "drunken waiter" (hypo/dysplastic sustentaculum tali) signs, were reported as well. As a second part to the study, in order to more accurately determine prevalence in a population requiring an MRI of the ankle, two observers reviewed 667 consecutive ankle MRIs performed on 640 patients. Patients less than 12 years of age (N = 20, 3.0%) or with nondiagnostic exams (N = 73, 10.9%) were excluded. Note was made: 1. if a coalition was present, 2. if it was definite or possible, 3. of the location, 4. of the type, 5. of secondary signs, and 6. the frequency of bilaterality. Results: In the initial retrospective study, coalitions were identified in 0.6% of exams performed, including 78 calcaneonavicular coalitions. Seven fractures were seen, all in the fibrous calcaneonavicular subgroup. We found only eight cases (10.3%) of the "anteater" sign, while identifying 19 cases (24.4%) of the "reverse" anteater sign in the calcaneonavicular group. Talar "beaks" were seen in 15 cases (19.2%) of the calcaneonaviuclar group and nine (39.1%) of the subtalar group. Sixteen (69.6%) of the subtalar cases demonstrated the "drunken waiter" sign, a dysplastic sustentaculum. We saw a dramatic difference in frequency of tarsal coalitions when we applied a prospective approach; 11.5% of all patients (66/574) had a coalition, while 12.2% of studies (70/574) demonstrated tarsal coalitions: 25.7% (18/70) were subtalar, 71.4% (50/70) were calcaneonavicular, and 2.9% (2/70) had both. The calcaneonavicular coalitions were roughly evenly divided between the cartilaginous (56%) and fibrous (44%) subtypes, without any osseous coalitions being identified. The subtalar coalitions were also nearly evenly divided between osseous/ partially osseous (33.3%), cartilaginous (27.8%), and fibrous (38.9%). Talar "beaks" were seen in 25 cases (50%) of the calcaneonavicular group and five (27.%) of the subtalar group. We identified six cases (12%) of the "anteater" and nine cases (18%) of the "reverse anteater" signs in our calcaneonavicular group. Conclusion: Tarsal coalitions appear to be more common than previously described. This is likely to be because fibrous and cartilaginous coalitions are infrequently recognized by plain radiography. The frequency of tarsal coalitions may be as high as 11%. We also found a disproportionately higher relative frequency of calcaneonavicular coalitions, either because subtalar coalitions are more subtle on MRI or because calcaneonavicular coalitions can be overly diagnosed. Calcaneonavicular coalitions tend to be overwhelmingly nonosseous, while there is a more even distribution for subtalar coalitions. Newly described signs, such as the "reverse anteater" and "drunken waiter," are commonly seen in calcaneonavicular and subtalar coalitions, respectively.


Tarsal coalition is an abnormal fibrous, cartilaginous, or osseous fusion of one or more of the tarsal ossification centers. It is an uncommon condition, generally believed to affect less than 1% of the population. The condition was described as early as 250 years ago. (1-4) Only during the early part of the last century were clinical findings noted, including tarsal or hindfoot pain and stiffness, decreased subtalar motion, valgus deformity, and non-healing ankle sprains. (5-7)

The goal of this study was to determine the prevalence and relative frequency, by location and morphologic subtype, of tarsal coalitions utilizing magnetic resonance (MR) criteria. We also evaluated previously described, as well as innovative, secondary MR signs. Our hypothesis was that, since MR is more sensitive than plain radiography or CT for the detection and description of tarsal coalition, MR evaluation would yield the true prevalence and distribution of location and morphologic type in a population requiring an ankle MRI and that MR would also better evaluate for the presence of secondary signs.

Subjects and Methods

A two-part study was performed. In the first part, we sought to determine the frequency in which two experienced musculoskeletal radiologists described tarsal coalitions. We initially searched reports on all ankle MRI examinations performed at our institution over a ten-year period that contained the word "coalition" in the comments or impression. Out of the 27,483 cases, 169 cases of tarsal coalition had been described. Of these cases, we were able to retrospectively, systematically evaluate 101 of them, utilizing previously described MR criteria for coalition type and location. We also reviewed these cases for the frequency of the following secondary signs: blunted or flat anterior calcaneal process, "anteater" sign, "reverse anteater" sign, talar beak, "drunken waiter" sign, marrow edema, and fractures.



For the second part of study, 667 consecutive ankle MRIs, performed over a 15-week period, were reviewed by the same two musculoskeletal radiologists for the presence of tarsal coalition. Our ankle MRI protocol includes sagittal Spin Echo (SE) T1-weighted and STIR sequences, axial Fast Spin Echo (FSE) Proton Density (PD) and frequency selective fat-saturated FSE T2-weighted sequences, and a coronal fat-saturated FSE T2-weighted sequence (Table 1).

We utilized previously published criteria for the diagnosis of tarsal coalition. (8,9) The criterion for osseous coalition was demonstration of a continuous marrow space (Figs. 1 and 2). The criteria for fibrous and cartilaginous coalitions were the loss of the fat plane at the affected articulation, geographic proximity, and a vertically oriented anterior process. If the intervening tissue was with low signal bridging on both T1 and T2 or STIR-weighted sequences, it was considered a fibrous coalition (Fig. 3). If it was gray on the T2 or STIR-weighted sequence, with or without abnormal fluid, it was considered a cartilaginous coalition (Fig. 4). (8)

Secondary signs evaluated for calcaneonavicular coalitions were similar to those utilized in plain radiographic evaluation: blunted or flat anterior calcaneal process (10) (Figs. 3 and 4), "anteater" sign (hyperplastic anterior calcaneal process with anterior elongation) (10-12); "reverse anteater" sign (hyperplastic navicular with posterior elongation) (Fig. 5); or a talar "beak," proximal to the talonavicular joint (Fig. 6). (13-15)


The secondary signs for talocalcaneal coalitions were: hypo/dysplastic sustentaculum tali ("drunken waiter" sign) (9) (Figs. 7 and 8) and talar "beaks." (13,14) The former sign was a subjective evaluation on coronal images, based on the cranial height of the sustenaculum as well as how well formed the inner curve appeared. The dysplastic sustenaculum tali occurring with a subtalar coalition has been likened to a waiter having trouble carrying his tray (either an upturned or downturned hand and plate) while intoxicated, where the body of the calcaneus is considered the waiter and the sustentaculum tali is the tray. We also evaluated areas of bone marrow edema (Figs. 3 and 7) and fractures.






In our initial retrospective study, a prevalence of 0.6% (169 coalitions out of 27,483 cases) was seen. Of the 101 cases we re-evaluated, 77.2% (78/101) were calcaneonavicular in location. Of those, 55.1% (43/78) were fibrous, 42.3% (33/78) were cartilaginous, and 2.6% (2/78) were osseous. Regarding location, 22.8% (23/101) of cases were subtalar, with 30.4% (7/23) fibrous, 30.4% (7/23) cartilaginous, and 39.1% (9/23) osseous or partially osseous. Coalitions in other locations were not identified (Table 3).


Only 10.3% (8/78) of the calcaneonavicular coalitions demonstrated the well-known "anteater" sign, while 24.4% (19/78) demonstrated the previously undescribed "reverse anteater" sign. Talar "beaks," which were only called in the absence of osteoarthritis, in order to prevent confusion with osteophytes, were seen in 19.2% (15/78) of cases. Seven fractures were seen, all in the fibrous subgroup. There were no fractures seen with the group of subtalar coalitions; 39.1% (9/23) demonstrated a talar "beak" and 69.6% (16/23) demonstrated the "drunken waiter" sign (Table 4).

In the second prospective study, a higher prevalence of 11.5% (66/574) of patients and 12.2% (70/574) of studies (four patients had bilateral coalitions) were seen. Calcaneonavicular coalitions accounted for 71.4% (50/70) of cases, and the subtalar location accounted for 25.7% (18/70). Two patients (2.9%) had both types of coalitions. In both instances, the subtalar component was osseous in nature and the calcaneonavicular was fibrous. Coalitions in other locations were not seen (Table 4).

Of the calcaneonavicular coalitions identified, 56.0% (28/50) were cartilaginous and 44.0% (22/50) were fibrous. There were no osseous calcaneonavicular coalitions seen. One-half (25/50) of the cases demonstrated a talar "beak," 12.0% (6/50) demonstrated the "anteater" sign, and 18.0% (9/50) demonstrated the "reverse anteater" sign. Within the group of subtalar coalitions, 33.3% (6/18) were osseous or partially osseous, 27.8% (5/18) were cartilaginous, and 38.9% (7/18) were fibrous in nature. All cases demonstrated the "drunken waiter" sign, and 27.8% (5/18) had talar "beaks." No fractures were seen and bone marrow edema was present in 36.0% (18/50) of calcaneonavicular and 27.8% (5/18) of subtalar coalitions. No discreet pattern of marrow edema, other than involvement of the bones directly involved in the coalition, was discerned. There were only five patients with bilateral studies, and at least one ankle was involved with coalition. Eighty percent (4/5) were calcaneonavicular and 20% (1/5) were subtalar in location.

We also made note of "coalition-like" appearances, where there was close apposition of the bones, but they did not meet MR criteria for true tarsal coalition. Overall, there was a 7.0% (40/574) prevalence of "coalition-like" appearances, some with evidence of biomechanical stress. Talar "beaks" were seen in 17.5% (7/40) of cases, and bone marrow edema was seen in 5.0% (2/40). All but two of those cases were calcaneonavicular in location (Table 5).


Tarsal coalitions in typical locations are generally felt to be a developmental anomaly.6,9,13,16 The precise cause is unclear but is thought to be due to a failure of mesenchymal segmentation. There is possible autosomal dominance with variable penetrance. (17-20)

Symptoms of coalitions include peroneal spastic flatfoot or rigid flatfoot attributed to peroneal spasm or adaptive peroneal shortening in response to heel valgus. (9,10,13,14,21-23) Symptoms are attributed to progressive ossification of the coalition. (10,22,24,25) Calcaneonavicular coalitions ossify earlier and become symptomatic around 8 to 12 years of age. (10,22,25,26) Talocalcaneal coalitions ossify later and become symptomatic around 12 to 16 years of age. (10,22,25) Conservative treatment options range from arch supports for minor symptoms to a short-leg walking cast immobilization in neutral or a slight varus positioning and decreased activity and anti-inflammatory medications. Surgical treatment includes resection with arthrodesis or arthrodesis alone.

The radiographic and cross-sectional criteria for the diagnosis of the various types of tarsal coalitions have been previously described. (6,8-11,13-15,21,22,26) The first formal radiologic analysis of tarsal coalition was described by Conway and Cowell in 1968. (13) Several investigators suggest that MR is more sensitive to nonosseous coalitions then CT. (8,27-29) This is the first study to utilize cross-sectional techniques to describe the frequency, location, and distribution of the different subtypes of coalitions.

More recent radiologic literature has focused on the value of cross-sectional imaging, compared to plain radiography and the relative merits of computed tomography (CT) and MRI. (8,9,21,29,30) Calcaneonavicular and talocalcaneal (subtalar) coalitions are accepted as the two most common types, but opinion varies regarding relative distribution and histologic subtype. (16,22,23,31) Calcaneocuboid and talonavicular coalitions are far less frequent. Stormont and Peterson reported that the incidences of calcaneonavicular and subtalar coalitions were 53% and 37%, respectively, with talonavicular and calcaneocuboid coalitions occurring far less commonly. (16) More recent work by Kulik and Clanton asserted that calcaneonavicular and subtalar coalitions occurred with roughly the same frequency. (22) Studies by Harris as well as Mosier and Asher even claim that subtalar coalitions are the most common. (23,32)

To our knowledge, the only study that evaluated the relative frequencies of the various histologic subtypes, as well as the incidence of secondary signs, utilizing modern cross-sectional techniques was a cadaveric study using helical CT evaluation by Solomon and colleagues. (33) They reported an approximately 3:1 ratio of calcaneonavicular to subtalar coalitions (only nonosseous coalitions were identified). We also found that calcaneonavicular coalitions are far more common than subtalar coalitions (approximately a 3:1 ratio in both the retrospective and prospective portions of the study), and that calcaneonavicular coalitions tend to be overwhelmingly nonosseous, while there is a more even distribution of histologic subtype for subtalar coalitions. This variability in histologic type explains why radiographic series may misrepresent not only the frequency but also the relative histologic distribution.

Most previous investigators have noted overall prevalence to be less than 1% of the general population, (6,16,19,31,34) although the recent cadaveric study by Solomon and coworkers demonstrated an incidence of almost 13%. (33) Their finding is similar to the frequency seen in the prospective portion of our study. Another recent investigation by Lysack and Fenton, which intended to evaluate radiographic variations in calcaneonavicular morphology, incidentally noted a general prevalence of calcaneonavicular coalition to be 5.6%. (35) Our initial retrospective study demonstrated an overall prevalence of less than 1%, however, which is consistent with most of the previous reports. Our study, as well as most prior ones, is a "victim" of some degree of population bias, from the perspective of who was imaged and for what indications. We did not image the general population, but a select one: only those patients with ankle pain or other symptoms requiring an MRI. We cannot be sure how many of these tarsal coalitions were actually the cause of their symptomatology and whether subtle fibrous and cartilaginous coalitions tended to be less symptomatic than osseous coalitions. In addition, we were unable to obtain surgical proof that the findings that the MRI studies demonstrated were actually tarsal coalitions.

The prior study by Solomon and associates also made conclusions similar to ours, where large numbers of nonosseous coalitions are likely symptomatic, they are often missed with spiral CT examinations. (33) A more recent study by Taniguchi and colleagues indicated that relying on the classic "C" radiographic sign to evaluate for subtalar coalitions will lead to numerous false negative diagnoses of nonosseous coalitions. (36) Taking those studies as well as ours into consideration, we believe that prior to the advent of MRI, many, if not most, nonosseous coalitions may have been missed, even with CT.

Although not called "true" tarsal coalitions, the "coalition-like" appearance was seen in an additional group of cases (7.0%). We are not certain what these represent, but present them only to add emphasis to the fact that coalitions are a spectrum of disorders. It is unclear if the these "coalition-like" appearances correlate at all to the morphologic types 2 and 3 described by Lysack and Fenton (35) on medial oblique radiographs of the ankle, although these investigators claimed that those morphologic types corresponded to cartilaginous and fibrous calcaneonavicular coalitions. Our cases showed many of the secondary MR signs, as in the more overt group, although at a lesser frequency.

Prior studies have reported a bilateral incidence of tarsal coalition of between 50% and 80%, with more frequent bilaterality of the calcaneonavicular subtype. (13,16,19,23,37) Although we observed an 80% bilateral occurrence in those patients with bilateral studies and at least one side positive for a coalition, our number of cases (5) was too small to draw any conclusions.

We also demonstrated that previously undescribed secondary signs of coalition are fairly common. These anatomic changes associated with tarsal coalitions are presumably due to the altered biomechanics that a relatively or completely immobile articulation would place upon the midfoot and hindfoot. Although the hyperplastic anterior calcaneal process, or the "anteater" sign, is a well-known sign for calcaneonavicular coalitions seen on lateral ankle radiographs (11) and sagittal MR images, we saw a far more common occurrence of the hyperplastic navicular, or "reverse anteater" sign, on sagittal imaging. Both findings are almost certainly due to similar biomechanical stresses, but it is uncertain why the posterior aspect of the tarsal navicular may become hypertrophied more often than the anterior calcaneal process.

Nearly all the talocalcaneal/subtalar coalitions demonstrated a hypo/dysplastic sustentaculum tali, where the upturned or downturned sustentaculum can be likened to a "drunken waiter" unable to hold his tray at a level position (Fig. 7). This finding has only been cursorily described in coronal cross-sectional imaging by previous investigators in association with calcaneal valgus, (9,38) although it does contribute to the "C" sign on lateral ankle radiographs.

There has been no published formal evaluation of the frequency of talar "beaks," a well known sign of both calcaneonavicular and subtalar coalitions that represents a traction spur attempting to compensate for abnormal motion at the talonavicular joint, (13,14,23) although there have been many descriptive papers on this topic. We observed a frequency of approximately 25% in subtalar coalitions in both of our studies and a range of 20% to 50% for calcaneonavicular coalitions. This is not surprising, considering how often this sign is identified anecdotally. We saw fractures involving only patients with fibrous calcaneonavicular patients and only in the first study. This information is nonspecific.


Tarsal coalitions appear to be much more common than previously described, likely because fibrous and cartilaginous coalitions are infrequently recognized by plain radiography. This also suggests that many coalitions may be asymptomatic. We also found a disproportionately higher relative frequency of calcaneonavicular coalitions, either because subtalar coalitions are subtler on MRI or because calcaneonavicular coalitions can be overcalled.

Disclosure Statement

None of the authors have a financial or proprietary interest in the subject matter or materials discussed, including, but not limited to, employment, consultancies, stock ownership, honoraria, and paid expert testimony.


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Kenneth M. Nalaboff, M.D., and Mark E. Schweitzer, M.D.

Kenneth M. Nalaboff, M.D., was from the Department of Radiology, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at submission. Mark E. Schweitzer, M.D., is Professor of Radiology and Orthopaedic Surgery, New York University School of Medicine, and Chairman, Division of Radiology, NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases, NYU Medical Center, New York, New York.

Correspondence: Mark.Schweitzer, M.D., Department of Radiology, NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases, 301 East 17th Street, New York, New York 10003;
Table 1 Ankle MRI Pulse Sequences

Sagittal SE T1 (400-800/min.) STIR (> 2000/20-40/150)

Axial FSE PD (> 2000/30-40) FSE T2 (2000-6000/60-70)
 with fat saturation with fat saturation

Coronal FSE T2 (2000-6000/60-70)

Table 2 MR Signs of Tarsal Coalition

 Osseous Cartilaginous Fibrous

Primary MR Continuity Loss of joint Areas of
criteria of marrow space, with intermediate
 space between signal intensity or low signal
 the suspect of cartilage or intensity
 bones joint fluid bridging the
 between the adjacent bones
 suspect bones

Secondary MR

 Calcaneonavicular Talocalcaneal

Primary MR Loss of marrow fat Loss of marrow
criteria between calcaneus fat between
 and navicular talus and
 Irregularity of
 the talocalcaneal

Secondary MR Blunted anterior "Drunken
criteria calcaneal process, waiter" sign,
 "Anteater" sign, talar "beak,"
 "reverse anteater" marrow edema,
 sign, talar "beak," fracture
 marrow edema,

Table 3 Study #1, Distribution

 Osseous Osseous Cartilaginous

Calcaneonavicular 0 2 33
Talocalcaneal 6 3 7
Total 6 5 40

 Fibrous Total

Calcaneonavicular 43 78
Talocalcaneal 7 23
Total 50 101

Table 4 Study #1, Secondary Signs

 "Reverse "Drunken
 Talar "Anteater" Anteater" Waiter"
 "beak" sign sign sign Fracture

 Osseous 0 0 0 0 0
 Partially Osseous 0 0 0 0 0
 Cartilaginous 6 2 4 0 0
 Fibrous 9 6 15 0 7
Total 15 8 19 0 7

 Osseous 3 0 0 0 0
 Partially Osseous 0 0 0 0 0
 Cartilaginous 6 0 0 13 0
 Fibrous 0 0 0 3 0
Total 9 0 0 16 0

Table 5 Study #2, Distribution

 Osseous Cartilaginous

 (N = 50) 0 28

 (N = 18) 6 5

Calcaneonavicular 2 (osseous
and Talocalcaneal talocalcaneal
 (N = 2) portion)

 Fibrous (N = 40)

 (N = 50) 22 38

 (N = 18) 7 2

Calcaneonavicular 2 (fibrous 0
and Talocalcaneal calcaneonavicular
 (N = 2) portion)

Table 6 Study #2, Secondary Signs

 Talar "Anteater" Anteater"
 "beak" sign sign

Calcaneonavicular 25 6 9
"Coalition-like" 7 0 0
Talocalcaneal 5 0 0
"Coalition-like" 0 0 0

 "Drunken Bone
 Waiter" Marrow
 sign Fracture Edema

Calcaneonavicular 0 0 18
"Coalition-like" 0 0 2
Talocalcaneal 18 0 5
"Coalition-like" 0 0 0
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Title Annotation:magnetic resonance imaging
Author:Nalaboff, Kenneth M.; Schweitzer, Mark E.
Publication:Bulletin of the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases
Article Type:Clinical report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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