10 Most Common Foot Problems and How to Deal With Them
Take good care of your feet, and they’ll take good care of you.
The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons made of strong fibrous tissues to keep all the moving parts together — not to mention more sweat glands than any other part of the body.
Indeed, the foot is an evolutionary marvel, capable of handling hundreds of tons of force — your weight in motion — every day. The foot’s myriad parts, including the toes, heel, and ball, work together to get you from one place to another.
But the stress of carrying you around puts your feet at high risk of injury, higher than any other body part. And many foot problems, including hammertoes, blisters, bunions, corns and calluses, claw and mallet toes, ingrown toenails, toenail fungus, and athlete’s foot, can develop from neglect, ill-fitting shoes, and simple wear and tear.
Pain in your feet may even be the first sign of a systemic problem. Gout, for example, often affects the foot joints first.
So let's talk about the 10 most common foot problems and solutions.
Caused by a fungus that likes warm, dark, moist environments, athlete’s foot commonly affects the areas between the toes and the bottoms of the feet. It can inflame the skin and cause a white, scaly rash with a red base. Other symptoms of athlete’s foot include itching, burning, peeling, and sometimes a slight odor.
You can lower your risk of athlete's foot (also called tinea pedis) by keeping your feet and toes clean and dry, changing your shoes and socks regularly, and never walking barefoot in public locker rooms and showers. Over-the-counter antifungal creams or sprays can be used to treat athlete’s foot, and sprays and powders can also be used inside your shoes to destroy any lingering fungus, according to Penn Medicine.
If these remedies do not work, you may need to see a doctor and ask about prescription-strength medication. It’s also worth knowing that the infection can migrate to other parts of the body if left untreated, Penn Medicine says. It can also be transmitted to other people via shared floors, gym mats, towels, and other surfaces.
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If your second, third, or fourth toe is crossed, bent in the middle of the toe joint, or just pointing at an odd angle, you may have what’s called a hammertoe. Ill-fitting shoes contribute to the formation of hammertoes.
If your toe is still flexible, your doctor may suggest that you wear roomier, more comfortable footwear. In addition, wearing inserts or foot pads can help reposition your toe.
But if your toe becomes fixed in the bent position, pain will set in and you may need surgery, according to the Mayo Clinic. When hammertoes press against the insides of your shoes, corns and calluses may form on them.
“Most blisters are caused by friction between the skin on the foot and the inside of your shoes,” says Allan M. Boike, a podiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic and the dean of the College of Podiatric Medicine at Kent State University in Ohio.
You can prevent blisters — soft pockets of raised skin filled with clear fluid — on your feet by wearing comfortable, appropriate-size shoes and socks. If blisters do develop, it’s best to let them break naturally rather than burst them on your own, even when they are painful and make walking difficult, Dr. Boike says.
“If you develop a blister, simply cover it with a bandage and allow it to burst naturally,” Boike says. “If it bursts, you can apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment with a bandage to help it heal and prevent infection, but you should keep the area covered to reduce friction and keep it from reforming.”
Most foot blisters don’t require medical attention. But if you have diabetes or another health condition that makes you prone to infections, you should consult a physician before treating any blisters yourself, Boike advises.
A bunion is a bony bump at the base of the big-toe joint. The changes within the foot that cause the bump also cause the big toe to turn inward, toward the smaller toes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Bunions can result from congenital deformities, arthritis, trauma, heredity, or habitually wearing shoes that are too narrow in the toe. Regardless of what caused them in the first place, bunions can be made worse by high heels and constrictive shoes.
Conservative treatment for bunions includes wider shoes, padded shoe inserts, and over-the-counter pain relievers. If those methods fail to relieve pain and allow for normal walking, the Mayo Clinic says, surgery may be recommended to return the big toe to its normal position.
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Corns and Calluses
Corns and calluses form after repeated rubbing against a bony area of the foot, usually by shoes that don’t fit well, the Cleveland Clinic says.
Corns can appear on the tops and sides of your toes as well as between your toes, while calluses tend to form on the bottoms of the feet, especially under the heels or balls of the feet, and on the sides of the toes. These compressed patches of dead skin cells can be hard and painful to walk on.
With many corns or calluses, you can treat them yourself by removing the buildup of skin. The Cleveland Clinic recommends soaking the affected area in warm water until the skin softens and using a wet pumice stone or emery board to remove the dead skin. Be gentle, though: Removing too much skin can cause bleeding and infection. You can also apply a moisturizing cream or lotion to the corn or callus and surrounding dead skin to soften the skin over time.
If this doesn’t work, you may need to consult a podiatrist, who may recommend placing moleskin or padding around corns and calluses to relieve pain.
Plantar fasciitis is a painful disorder in which the ligament — the fascia — that connects the ball of the foot to the heel becomes inflamed or even torn. Plantar fasciitis has no visual signs or symptoms, just pain and stiffness in the foot, says Tracey C. Vlahovic, a podiatrist and a clinical professor at the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine in Philadelphia.
Research suggests the condition is common among runners and other athletes of all levels, but it’s generally seen as an overuse injury for which nearly everyone is at risk, Vlahovic notes.
“Most of the time, we’ll refer people to physical therapy, where they can learn stretches to reduce the tightness in the medial band of the foot,” Boike says. Fewer than 10 percent of the people with plantar fasciitis Boike sees require surgery to treat the condition.
Applying a cold compress can help relieve the pain. Your podiatrist may also recommend that you wear a splint at night to stretch the affected foot, Boike says.
Claw Toes and Mallet Toes
A claw toe curls upward at the joint where the toes and the foot meet and downward at the middle and end joints of the toe, making the toe look curved, or clawlike.
Claw toes often develop calluses and corns where they rub against shoes. While tight shoes can be blamed for claw toes, so can nerve damage to the feet (from diabetes or other conditions), which weakens foot muscles.
With mallet toes, the toe bends downward at the joint at the tip of the toe, and a painful corn often grows at the tip of the toe where it presses against the ground. Generally, the second toe is affected because it’s the longest. Injuries and arthritis are among the causes of mallet toe, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Gout is a type of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in joint tissues and joint fluid, which happens when the body is unable to keep uric acid levels in check, according to Boike. Although gout isn’t a foot condition per se, typically, one of the first places this buildup occurs is in the big toe joint. This is because, temperature-wise, the toes are the body’s coolest parts, and uric acid crystallizes with temperature changes, Boike says.
You’ll probably know a gout attack when it happens: The joint where the big toe connects to the foot will get hot, red, and swollen and will be painful even to the slightest touch.
You can help reduce your risk of gout attacks by making changes to your diet to avoid foods known to cause a rise in uric acid, like red meat, seafood, and alcohol, particularly beer, Boike says. Significant consumption of beer or liquor (more than one drink per day) has been linked to an increased risk of an attack of gout, he says.
Maintaining a normal body weight also appears to have a significant effect on preventing gout attacks.
Once you are in the midst of a gout attack, drinking water to keep hydrated and staying in bed may help, but if you have frequent attacks, your doctor will likely refer you to a rheumatologist to manage the condition, according to Boike.
Medications for gout are designed to reduce pain or control the body’s production of uric acid to limit the frequency of attacks, he says.
Although gout most often starts in the foot, it can spread to other joints, where uric acid can accumulate and crystallize, limiting range of motion — which is why it’s important to treat the condition, not just the symptoms, Boike says.
Proper toenail clipping — straight across and not too short — is key to preventing ingrown toenails. If you don’t cut them straight, the corners or sides of the nail can dig into the skin, causing pain and sometimes an infection (called paronychia).
Other causes of ingrown toenails include shoes that press your toes together and unusually curved toenails, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you develop an ingrown toenail, you can try soaking the toe in warm water for 15 or 20 minutes several times a day and tucking a small piece of cotton or dental floss under the ingrown edge of the nail to encourage it to grow up and away from the skin
If home remedies aren’t working or you have diabetes or another cause of reduced blood flow to the toes, you should see a doctor, who may lift or remove the affected nail and recommend the use of a topical antibiotic to prevent infection, the Mayo Clinic says.
Toenail fungus can give nails an unattractive, deformed appearance. It can also spread to other nails, including fingernails.
Toenail fungus often forms after damage to the nail that causes the nail-skin junction, where the nail meets the skin of the toe, to be disrupted. This can occur after a pedicure, because of ill-fitting shoes, or after repetitive trauma from running or hiking that causes the nail to lift or get pressed on.
“Toenail fungus is caused by a skin-, hair-, and nail-loving fungus,” Vlahovic says. “The fungus is attracted to the protein in the nail bed, and the toenail is perfect because it’s in a moist and warm environment — inside your shoes — most of the day.”
Treating toenail fungus can be difficult, as it often comes back even after successful treatment. You should talk to your doctor about taking a prescription antifungal medication, because over-the-counter treatments likely won’t work.
If medication doesn’t work, you may need surgery to correct the trauma that caused the fungus to take hold, the Mayo Clinic says.
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