Common foot problems range from irritating to downright painful. After all, we put our feet through a lot every day. Think of the uncomfortable shoes, the hard pavement, and all the pressure they’re under as we walk, jump, and run to catch the bus. No wonder our feet are plagued with blisters, bunions, or even broken bones! And these foot problems only get worse as we age and our arches and padding begin to wear down. Luckily, with proper foot care, it’s possible to prevent and treat many of the most common foot problems. At-home foot care is easy and usually only requires ice, ibuprofen, warm water, and—most importantly—properly-fitted shoes.
The Number One Step You Can Take
Get some good shoes. This is really important. With some clothing items, it’s okay to choose a low cost over the quality of the product. However, especially as we get older, it’s very important that our shoes are high quality. Why? Check out this fact about feet: according to a New York Times health report, feet support a force that equals several hundred tons every day. When we put on low-quality or ill-fitting shoes, it puts additional strain and stress on all the bones, ligaments, and nerves in our feet. Cue foot pain, blisters, bunions, collapsed arches, ingrown toenails, etc. Find a pair with good arch support and soft cushions on the soles. You can also invest in some gel insoles that will help with arch support.
First, a quick anatomy lesson: your heart pumps blood and other vital fluids to every corner of your body to oxygenate your limbs. Blood then circulates back to your heart in a never-ending cycle. Most of the time, foot, ankle, and leg swelling occurs when your body has a hard time getting the blood in your legs to come back up to your heart. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including high blood pressure, excess salt, and pregnancy, and while foot swelling isn’t dangerous, it can be uncomfortable. Reduce foot swelling by elevating your feet! After all, gravity is what’s preventing a lot of the blood from getting up your legs. Setting your legs on some pillows at night and keeping your feet above your heart will go a long way in decreasing that swelling. Also try compression socks, which will keep legs, feet, and ankles from swelling even as you walk around during the day. Soaking feet in warm Epsom salt water will also reduce that swelling because of the magnesium sulfate absorbed through your skin. Finally, drink enough water! If your body is dehydrated, it will retain water, which is another cause of swollen feet and ankles.
Everyone’s feet have arches, which are bones and joints held together in an arch that acts as a shock absorber for the whole body. Remember, we put hundreds of tons of pressure on our feet every day, and our arches keep the bones in our legs and feet from fracturing. As critical as these arches are for our health, they can also be incredibly fragile: if not protected, arches can collapse, which can lead to all kinds of pain in feet and legs. Find out if your feet are flat by getting feet wet, standing on a sidewalk or concrete deck, and then stepping away. If you see a complete imprint of your foot, then your feet are probably flat.
However, you don’t necessarily have to be worried. Some people have no arches in their feet and never feel pain. Other people may find they feel pain when having to stand or walk for long periods of time. To prevent flat feet, refer back to step number one: wear good shoes. If you can’t always wearing good shoes—for example, if you need to wear slightly uncomfortable shoes to work—find some gel insoles for those shoes. If you already have flat feet and have been noticing mild irritation or pain, try icing feet by placing them on top of ice packs or frozen vegetable bags, as well as taking an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen. If the pain is ever intense or debilitating, it’s time to see a doctor.
Here’s the simple definition of a bunion: it happens when the first toe bone in the foot turns out, which causing the big toe to point in towards the other toes. That causes the joint between the foot and the big toe to jut out—and since shoes aren’t made with this extra protrusion in mind, the fluid-filled cushion around the joint becomes inflamed from extra pressure. Usually, a bunion forms when feet get pushed into narrow, pointy-toed, or high-heeled shoes too often. When the toes don’t have enough room to spread out, they squish together and the big toe gets pushed against, over, or under the other toes. Over time, this does enough to actually change the structure of your foot. It’s also more likely to happen to people with low arches or loose joints, people who have jobs that require a lot of standing, or people with a genetic predisposition towards bunions.
Often, bunions affect people with a genetic predisposition towards feet with low arches and loose joints. Bunions can be headed off, however, by carefully choosing shoes with a lot of space between the toes and the outside and end of the shoe. If your toes are being pushed together inside your shoe, and if you have flat feet or members of your family who have also experienced bunions, then it’s time to get a new pair of shoes. If you end up developing a bunion, surgery isn’t usually necessary unless the pain becomes too much to bear. Instead, wear shoes with wide soles and low heels; the sole should be wide enough to leave room for the bunion so that the side of the shoe won’t be pressing against it and causing you pain. Wearing sandals can also help, since there is no side to press against the bunion. If the bunion is irritated, use an icepack and take some ibuprofen.
Corns and Calluses
Corns and calluses are small areas on your foot of thick, dead skin. The two are very similar, but corns are only found on the top and sides of feet as opposed to calluses, which can form anywhere there is repetitive motion, and can be more painful and irritating than calluses. Corns and calluses are created from repetitive pressure against your foot; that pressure and friction causes the skin to harden to protect itself. Often, corns and calluses form because of ill-fitting shoes or wearing shoes without socks. Generally, no treatment is needed for corns. However, if it’s painful or you don’t like the look of it, the fix is usually easy: wear properly fitted shoes! (Are you sensing a theme here?) You can also put gel pads in your shoes to relieve some of the pressure on those areas, and remember to always wear socks with your tennis shoes.
Ingrown toenails occur when the corner or side of a toenail starts to grow into the skin, often causing pain, swelling, or even an infection. If the toe is feeling tender and painful, and swelling around the nail, then you probably have an ingrown toenail. They happen when you wear shoes that are too narrow or small or if you cut a toenail too short or at too much of a curve. Again, try to wear wider shoes and make sure to cut nails straight across to prevent them.
It’s important to treat ingrown toenails at home as soon as you realize the nail is ingrown because left untreated, it could eventually cause an infection. Luckily, there are easy at-home foot care treatments that can help. Most importantly, soak your feet in warm water three times a day for about 20 minutes. After you’re done soaking, it’s time to put little pieces of cotton or dental floss underneath the ingrown bit of your toenail to help guide the nail to grow above the surface of the toe. Try to wear open-toed shoes for a while to reduce pressure on the toe, and take ibuprofen to reduce pain and swelling. A doctor should be seen if the redness continues to spread or you’re in severe pain, or if you have diabetes, as the decreased blood flow to your feet could have a negative effect on any recovery.
When to See a Doctor
Many common foot problems can be treated at home with proper footwear, ice or warm water, and some ibuprofen. Every so often, however, foot pain is due to a more serious, underlying cause. See a doctor if you experience a sudden pain behind the second or third toe, which could be due to a stress fracture; or if you’re ever completely unable to put weight on the foot. If you have diabetes, it’s even more important to be in contact with a doctor about any foot pain or problems. And remember: if you treat your feet gently and with proper care now, you can avoid more serious problems later on!