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Our feet work hard for us every day, but we may not give them the attention they need until there’s a problem.
Some of the most common foot problems include:
- Diabetic neuropathy. This is when a person with diabetes doesn’t have sensation in his or her feet because of a nerve problem. That person might get a cut on the foot but not feel it. It could get infected or, in a worst-case scenario, require surgery or amputation.
- Athlete’s foot, which is a type of fungal infection.
- Plantar fasciitis, which is when an area of tissue called the plantar fascia becomes inflamed. This can happen because of poor footwear or overuse. Heel pain is the hallmark symptom associated with plantar fasciitis.
- Ingrown toenails, used to describe when the corner or side of a nail (usually on the big toe) turns inward and grows into the skin of the toe. It can cause pain, redness, swelling and sometimes an infection.
- A bunion, which is a bony bump on the side of the big toe.
- Warts, which are caused by a type of virus.
Why Footcare Is Important for Health
There are many reasons you should monitor your foot health:
Reveals Systemic Problems
Your feet can show early signs of systemic health problems. Poor circulation and hardening of the arteries can affect the feet before other parts of the body, says Dr. James R. Hanna, a podiatrist in Lockport, New York, and president of the New York State Podiatric Medical Association. For example, hardening of the arteries can cause pain in the feet or legs when exercising.
Dr. Said Atway, a podiatrist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, has treated patients with foot conditions that led them to discover they had diabetes.
Prevents You From Exercising
Problems with your feet may stop you from walking and exercising. With the many benefits associated with physical activity, this can negatively affect your overall health.
It Can Develop Into a Bigger Health Issue
Ignoring what may seem like a small foot issue could lead to bigger, more painful problems in the long run, says Dr. Miguel Cunha, a podiatric surgeon and founder of Gotham Footcare in New York City. For instance, chronic ingrown toenails may lead to having the entire nail removed.
Or wrong shoes – like very high heels or shoes that are too narrow – can lead to the development of foot problems such as heel pain, bunions or hammertoes. A hammertoe is a toe with an abnormal bend in the middle joint. Over time it can cause pain and calluses. Bunions – a painful, bony bump that forms on the joint where your big toe meets your foot – are also usually the result of tight, narrow shoes.
10 Tips to Take Better Care of Your Feet at Home
Here are some tips to help you take better care of your feet at home and to determine if you should see a foot doctor for a potential problem.
1. Choose footwear carefully. Proper footwear provides the right foundation for your feet and can help avoid many common foot problems. Measure your feet when you buy new shoes, as your size can change over time. Buy shoes at the end of the day, as that’s when your feet are at their largest size, Cunha advises. Choose shoes that have about a half-inch of space in the toe box between the end of your longest toe and the shoe itself. This can help avoid squeezing your feet into too small of a space.
2. Wear the right shoes. Different shoes have different purposes. Here’s the recommended footwear from foot doctors depending on what you will be doing:
- Wear steel-toed shoes if you are working at a construction site.
- Use athletic shoes for everyday errands, exercise or yardwork.
- Wear water shoes on the beach. Atway has seen bad injuries from people who have stepped on a thorn, glass or other debris during a vacation.
- Choose water shoes or sandals if using a public shower. This can help you avoid athlete’s foot and warts. Warts on the feet or hands can be caused by a virus that is commonly picked up in public areas. It then can be activated after a cut or abrasion, Atway says.
- Wear heels no higher than 1½ inches. Shorter heels put less tension on the Achilles tendon, which connects your calf muscles to the heel, Cunha says. That can lead to stiffness and pain in the Achilles tendon. Wearing too high of a heel over time also makes you more susceptible to ingrown toenails as high heels cause the toes to be compressed together.
- Replace shoes when needed. Trying to get the last few miles out of a pair of shoes or sneakers could make you more prone to injury, Hanna says. Some signs you need new shoes: the treads on the soles are wearing out, you’ve used the shoes for about 300 to 500 miles and your shoes feel less supportive or cause pain after using them.
One final tip on shoewear: Avoid wearing most types of flip flops or slides for long periods of time. Although they’re popular, the design of these shoes can affect the way you walk and your posture because they don’t offer arch support, which usually keeps your back, heels and knees in alignment. That lack of foot support puts a lot of stress on the foot and the rest of the body, Cunha says. It can lead to problems like bunions, hammertoes, Achilles tendonitis (a type of inflammation in the Achilles tendon) and even pain in the knees and back. If you must wear them, do so for only short periods of time, such as just around the pool or in a public shower.
3. Examine your feet daily. This is especially important if you have diabetes, as neuropathy could lead you to have an injury and not even know it. People with diabetes also usually have injuries that take longer to heal, and they are more prone to infections.
If you can’t bend down to regularly examine your feet, then ask a family member or friend to do it. Regular foot checks can help you see if you’ve had cuts or other injuries to your feet that may need to be checked out by a doctor.
4. Pace yourself with new physical activity. Foot doctors have seen many patients eager to start new outdoor activities, only to get sidelined by a condition like plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis, says Dr. Kyle Fiala, a podiatrist with University of Missouri Health Care in Columbia, Missouri.
Start slow and work your way up to more time or intensity with exercises like running. If you do get plantar fasciitis, there are calf stretches you can do to help treat it, and there are over-the-counter orthotics that will give your heel better support, Fiala says.
5. Change your socks often. The socks you wear can make a big difference in preventing or contributing to athlete’s foot. Change your socks frequently, especially if your feet tend to get sweaty. Socks made with a synthetic blend such as polyester or nylon tend to do a better job of absorbing sweat than cotton socks, Fiala says. Combine your frequent changing of socks with the daily use of a disinfectant spray inside the shoes themselves to help combat athlete’s foot, Hanna advises. The spray can help kill bacteria and fungi found in warm, moist places like your shoes. If you suspect you have athlete’s foot, try an over-the-counter antifungal cream.
6. Use over-the-counter aids for bunions. There are toe spacers and pads available at stores that can help ease pain, and some people find they help. Treatment is usually only needed for bunions if they bother you. Sometimes, bunions become so painful that they require surgery.
7. Pamper your feet properly at home. Maybe you don’t want the expense of a professional pedicure, or you just feel like your feet need their own at-home spa time. Here’s a safe way you can pamper them, according to Cunha: Mix four parts warm water (no warmer than 92 to 100 degrees) and one part apple cider vinegar with three tablespoons of Epsom salt. Soak for 20 minutes. The soaking will help break down dry skin. Next, apply castor oil, tea tree oil or eucalyptus oil to any calluses for 5 to 10 minutes. These types of oils are natural antifungals. To finish off, exfoliate with a pumice stone. A pumice stone will be gentler on your feet than a foot scraper. End with your favorite foot cream or lotion.
You can also use at-home foot spas to relax, but keep a similar temperature range of 92 to 100 degrees. Going above 100 degrees can be unsafe, particularly if you are pregnant, have diabetes or have poor circulation, Cunha explains.
8. Clip your toenails with care. Use a straight-edge toenail clipper, as it’ll help ensure your nails are cut straight across, lowering the chance of an ingrown toenail, Cunha says. Frequently, people cut at an angle or too close to their skin. After cutting, file your toenails with an emery board, using light pressure to smooth the edges.
9. Get regular health checkups. Follow any recommendations from your doctor for health checkups, be it annually or more often. Maintaining good overall health can help your feet stay healthy. You’ll also stay aware of health conditions that frequently cause foot problems, such as diabetes. Plus, better foot care can help improve health problems related to diabetes, obesity and falls, Hanna says.
10. Know when to see a foot doctor. The timing on when to see a foot doctor can be a balancing act. The feet are normally slow to heal, so you want to give any pain or injury some time to improve. On the other hand, waiting too long could make it harder to treat a problem. Here’s when you should see a foot doctor:
- Your foot pain isn’t improving after three to four weeks.
- Your nails are discolored or you have an ingrown toenail.
- There are areas between the toes that are dry and scaly, which don’t get better with the use of an over-the-counter antifungal. You may need stronger treatment for athlete’s foot.
- You can’t walk normally on your feet.
- You have diabetes. You’ll need regular foot checks, and you also should have any foot injuries checked out promptly.