By: Joe Fleming from Vive Health
What causes foot pain?
The human foot is a magnificent feat of biological design, no pun intended.
Did you know that a quarter of all the bones in your body are found in your feet?
That may come as no surprise understanding how feet provide the foundation for all your functional movement and activity.
In addition to 26 bones, your feet are comprised of an intricate network of 33 joints and over 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments.
They are strong enough to bear your weight.
Flexible enough to help you run, jump, swim... you name it.
And sturdy enough to stabilize your body’s movements and secure your balance.
Feet get put through the ringer throughout your lifetime.
For the average active person, not even a marathon runner or someone who walks miles to work each day, your feet will carry you over 100,000 miles when all is said and done.
Perhaps this is why foot pain is so exacerbating.
Foot pain is not taken lightly by those who suffer it.
You rely on your feet for almost everything.
And pain, from mild discomfort in the ball of your foot to searing shocks of pain up through your heel, can sideline even the simplest day to day activities.
Foot pain is dangerous for several reasons.
But the biggest worry is that it can quickly lead to inactivity which negatively impacts various aspects of your health.
From diet to exercise, posture, and even mood and mental state. For older people especially, foot pain can lead to debilitating falls and immobility.
Common Causes of Foot Pain
Foot pain is a common symptom of injuries to the lower leg, ankle, and foot areas.
Injuries aren’t always the result of impact, falling, or broken bones either.
For the most part, common foot injuries occur from:
Wearing ill-fitting shoes
Shoes that are too tight or too loose alter your gait and pronation, placing imperceptible stress on connective foot tissues and joints
What is pronation?
The natural inward rolling of the ankle when you walk, distributing weight from first impact of the heel striking the ground down down through to the ball of the foot.
Depending on the way you walk, your pronation and therefore your foot arch may vary.
Over-pronation is when your body distributes most of the weight to the inside of your foot when walking, resulting in little to no arch (flat feet).
Under-pronation is when your body distributes most of the weight to the outside of your foot when walking, resulting in a high arch.
Wearing high heels
Foot pain is more common among women largely because of their use of high heels.
Shoes which pinch the toes into a narrow point, place added stress on bones and the foot arch, and alter the pelvic balance.
A 2015 report even found that high heel-related injury rates nearly doubled in the ten years between 2002 and 2012, significantly among younger women in their 20's and 30's.
Many athletes, especially runners, experience overuse injuries simply from the wear and tear of bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons after years of training.
Weak, stiff muscles
When your lower leg, ankle, and foot muscles aren’t strengthened and limber, they are more likely to strain and become injured overtime.
Along with overuse, high-impact exercises like running or jogging, playing soccer, and strenuous aerobics can result in injuries to crucial bones and connective tissues.
The risk of injury is higher when an athlete increases mileage drastically, switches to a new terrain suddenly, or starts a lot of incline work.
Common foot injuries may include...
When the plantar fascia tissue which runs along the bottom of the foot from the heel to the toes becomes strained from overuse, microscopic tears may occur along it as well as inflammation and stiffness.
The resulting pain is typically felt in the heel or arch of the foot.
The Achilles tendon, which stretches down the back of the calf to the heel, can also become strained, especially with athletic activity, and can inflame, tear, or even rupture.
Severe heel pain is typically the most noticeable symptom of Achilles tendinitis.
The metatarsal bones which lay, 5 per foot, between the hind foot and phalanges (toe bones) can become bruised due to repeated impact as well as lose some of the cushion in the footpad around them.
This causes mild to severe pain in the forefoot (also known as stone bruise).
The permanent bending of the toe at the middle joint (typically in the second, third, and fourth toes), is called hammer toe.
This can be painful as the top joint of the toe that is pointed down instead of out can rub against footwear and become irritated.
A bony protrusion at the base joint of the big toe is called a bunion and is a bone deformity which can occur from wearing narrow shoes (like high heels) frequently, structural problems of the foot, and ailments like arthritis.
A 2010 study found that 23% of adults ages 18 - 65 will actually develop at least one bunion, while over 35% of older adults over 65 will as well.
Not to be mistaken for a bunion, a bone spur is the growth of a bony prominence on top of an existing bone.
Bone spurs can press on vulnerable tissue, pinch nerves, and cause pain and inflammation.
Other ailments which cause foot pain include...
Skin conditions of the foot which typically result from footwear irritation include corns (thick, hardened center with tender surrounding skin) and calluses (thick and rough patch of skin that looks raised).
When the edge of a toenail (usually the big toe) curves down and grows into the skin instead of away from the foot, an ingrown toenail results.
This can lead to pain, swelling, redness, tenderness, and infection.
This common fungal infection actually affects around 15 to 25% of the population at any given time according to a 2009 report.
The infection causes mild to severe itching, burning, and fissuring of the skin on the foot, typically between the toes and on the sole.
1 out of 5 adults deals with doctor-diagnosed arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
For many arthritis sufferers, it is chronic inflammation of the ankle or foot joints which results in pain and potential mobility issues.
Natural Foot Pain Remedies
Luckily, many foot ailments are self-diagnosable and can be treated naturally without surgical intervention or pharmacological aid.
Natural foot pain remedies may include:
The feet can be made stronger and more flexible just like any other body part.
Stretching the Achilles tendon and plantar fascia ligament may help make those connective tissues more pliable and limber, and less likely to strain or tear.
Foot exercise may include simple activities like picking up pencils, game pieces, or a towel off the floor with your toes.
Stretching the toes back towards your leg with a rubber band or even repeatedly flexing and pointing the foot for a couple minutes at a time are also useful.
Continuing with normal activity and movement while experiencing foot pain may only exacerbate the underlying cause.
Rest plays a significant role in helping the body’s tissues repair themselves and grow stronger.
Elevating an inflamed foot or ankle can help reduce swelling, and regular resting as recommended by your treating physician may last a couple weeks to a couple months.
Cold therapy through applying ice packs or a cold compress to an injured foot or ankle can aid painful swelling and inflammation.
Ice packs should always be applied with a barrier between them and the skin.
Only use for 10 to 20 minutes at a time to prevent ice burn.
A variety of over the counter orthotic insoles aid some foot pain by providing arch support.
These positively influence your gait and pronation, as well as adding cushioning and stability to your footwear.
Additional orthotics like a hammer toe crest pad or metatarsal cushion sleeve target specific injuries and deformities like hammer toe or metatarsalgia.
An ankle or foot brace/cast may be placed on by a surgeon following a procedure for a broken bone or severe Achilles tendinitis rupture.
However, over the counter braces for more mild foot injuries and ailments can be found in most pharmacies and drug stores.
An ankle brace may provide support to your weight bearing extremity and help limit motion while your ankle or foot heals.
Similar to “cross training,” activity modification for someone experiencing foot pain can allow them to stay active and exercise without worsening an injury.
For example, a runner may find ease in participating in a non-weight bearing exercise like cycling, swimming, or rowing.
As a 2016 study showed, night splinting can help prevent pain from plantar fasciitis.
Those first few steps in the morning which often feel the worse seem to improve greatly with this method.
The study shares, “Night splints have produced highly positive outcomes such as resolution of symptoms within 12 weeks of use.”
For chronic foot pain which involves complete immobilization, open or infected sores and wounds on the foot, swelling and inflammation that will not subside, and other visible and tender injuries of the foot, immediate evaluation by a doctor is recommended.
A doctor or podiatrist will be able to analyze the foot to diagnose the problem and customize a treatment plan with you.
In addition to natural measures for alleviating foot pain and regaining full use of the foot, more invasive and prescriptive treatment may include:
● Custom orthotics specifically molded and designed for your foot
● Foot, ankle, or lower leg surgery
● Topical analgesic (NSAID) creams
● Steroid injections
● Platelet-rich plasma injections
● Narcotic pain killers
Effectively ridding yourself of foot pain for good is a matter of understanding the underlying cause and adjusting your lifestyle accordingly.
For athletes, this may include integrating more foot stretching into training.
Updating old worn out running shoes, and avoiding drastic increases in running mileage will also prevent foot pain.
For a person with an unavoidable medical condition like arthritis or gout, preventing foot pain may involve utilizing a mobility aid to help with bearing weight successfully.
Exercising the foot and ankle joints to relieve stiffness and inflammation will also help.
Anyone experiencing foot pain can always practice better foot care techniques to prevent common sources of pain as well.
Productive foot care tends to both the outside skin and internal tissues.
Take the essential steps to:
● Wash and thoroughly dry feet each night, moisturizing regularly to keep skin hydrated and supple (less likely to dry out and crack)
● Wear proper fitting shoes and avoid high heels when possible
● Exercise leg and foot muscle groups regularly to maintain strength and flexibility
● Make sure you’re intaking vital electrolytes (like potassium, magnesium) to prevent muscle cramping in the feet and legs as well as calcium for bone density
● Maintain a healthy weight to prevent overloading the lower extremity joints and muscles
● See a medical doctor regarding chronic foot pain that is impacting activity levels
Foot pain takes a top prize when it comes to the most common reasons for visiting a doctor.
In fact, a 2012 survey from the Institute for Preventative Foot Health found that 78% of adults 21 years or older report having had at least one foot issue.
If you’re one of those 78%, ridding yourself of foot pain will best be accomplished by understanding foot structure, cracking down on the underlying causes of your foot pain, updating lifestyle and exercise habits, and practicing healthy foot care.
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