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Foot Pain

Dr. Matthew Garoufalis

Reviewed by
Dr. Matthew Garoufalis

Foot pain can occur to just about any part of your foot, ranging from your toes to the back of your heel, on top or bottom of one or both of your feet. Some foot pain is mild and temporary, while other foot pain is chronic and persistent throughout one’s lifetime.

Each foot comprises twenty-six bones and thirty-three joints, layered within more than 120 muscles, ligaments, and nerves. Our feet support our weight, act as a shock absorber, propel our legs forward, and help to keep our balance on uneven surfaces. The average person takes 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association. With such important and constant duties to perform, our feet are susceptible to pain.

A staggering 72 percent of Americans say they do not exercise because foot pain prevents them from doing so, according to a recent survey by the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA). This finding, when viewed in light of the soaring rates of US obesity as reported by the Centers for Disease Control, makes visiting a podiatrist and addressing foot pain critically important. Minor foot pain can usually be taken care of at home, while severe pain should receive medical attention. If you leave foot pain untreated, it can lead to long-term disabilities or damage. Identifying the underlying problem that is causing the foot pain is key to treating and avoiding future pain or discomfort. Almost 75 percent of Americans have had foot pain at some point in their life. There are four grades of foot pain:

  • During activity
  • Before and after, not affecting the performance
  • Before, during and after activity, affecting the performance
  • Pain that prevents performance

Foot Pain Symptoms

Other than the initial pain in the foot, there are additional symptoms that may accompany the foot pain, including:

  • Tenderness when the foot is touched
  • Increased pain when mobile and decrease in pain when resting
  • Pain when the foot is moved
  • Bruising
  • Swelling
  • Loss of function
  • Weakness in the foot
  • Numbness in the foot
  • Change in the way you walk to avoid pain
  • Change in skin or nail color
  • You feel ill or are running a fever
  • Stiffness in foot

What Causes Foot Pain?

There are various different causes for foot pain. Here is a look at some of the more common causes:

Although all of these causes are common, the most common causes of foot pain are the three at the top of the list. Poorly fitting shoes, whether too loose, too small, or too big, can cause pain in various places throughout the foot, ankle, leg, or even the lower back. Injuring your foot can also cause enormous pain, depending on the severity of the damage. Excessive walking, running, jogging, climbing, or other activities that require you to stand or move around can lead to painful feet. Certain medical conditions such as diabetes or arthritis can also cause foot pain, as blood circulation slows in the lower regions of the body.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Foot pain can be brought on by a number of causes, injuries, underlying conditions, or disorders. Because of the many different kinds of problems that can cause pain in your feet, it can sometimes be difficult to decide when it is best to seek medical attention. Here are some indicators that may suggest you should see your doctor:

  • Pain is interfering with normal daily activities
  • You can not perform desired activities without pain
  • Pain worsens when mobile
  • Your foot is beginning to look deformed or misshapen
  • You have a loss of function
  • Changes in sensation occur- for example, you cannot feel heat from concrete on a hot day
  • Severe swelling
  • Changes in your skin color or nail color
  • Heat in the painful area of the foot
  • Your foot is tender to the touch
  • If you are forcing yourself to walk or run a different way to avoid pain

Your doctor will diagnose your foot pain based on your activities, your medical history, the intensity of pain and obvious signs and symptoms. X-rays and other imaging tests (CT scans, MRIs) may be ordered if there are not obvious signs of an underlying cause, or if you are unable to put weight on your foot. Physical examinations may also reveal where the problem is located in the foot.

Treatment Options for Foot Pain

There are numerous things you can do to control or treat your foot pain. The first step is seeing a foot specialist, a podiatrist, or a foot and ankle surgeon. You can sometimes help yourself by using the acronym RICE to relieve foot pain. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Icing should be done by applying ice to the injury for ten to twenty minutes and then removing the ice for twenty minutes, repeating the process for as long as your doctor recommends—which could be hours, the first day, or for the first couple of days. The RICE method is one way to treat an injury to the foot. Other treatment options may include:

  • Shoe inserts
  • Medications
  • Stretching the foot muscles
  • Switching foot wear
  • Limiting activities
  • Surgery (for severe cases that are caused by additional conditions such as ingrown toenails)

Many prevention measures can also be used to treat foot pain (see below). For example, shoe inserts manufactured by Dr. Scholl’s, Spenco, Medi-Dyne, and Superfeet offer a variety of sizes, thicknesses, and colors to people who suffer from foot pain, or to those who are trying to prevent it. Treatment will be based on what is causing the foot pain, the severity of the pain, and the underlying cause. Your foot pain may ease while you are at the doctor’s office, or you may experience pain throughout your recovery process. Recovery times depend on the cause of the pain. For example, if you have a stress fracture and need to use crutches, you may have pain for up to six weeks or longer. If you are experiencing pain due to an infection, you may have pain until the infection is cured.

Preventing Foot Pain

Here are some prevention tips to avoid injury or foot pain:

  • Wear the proper size and style of shoes and socks for the activity you are engaged in.
  • Treat all underlying conditions such as gout, diabetes, or arthritis.
  • Warm up with stretching exercises before all physical activities.
  • Be careful when increasing your workload, your body may not be prepared.
  • Listen to your feet, and have all problems examined by a medical professional.
  • Refrain from activities that cause pain until you have sought treatment or diagnosis.

Talking to Your Doctor

If you are experiencing foot pain, you may want to be prepared to ask your doctor questions about the problem. Here are some questions to ask your doctor:

  • Which warm-up exercises would benefit me most?
  • Are there any cool-down exercises I should be aware of?
  • Will my foot pain prevent me from performing my daily activities?
  • I have a job that requires hours of standing; which orthotics would benefit me most?
  • Should I change my diet? If so, what foods will help me return to my healthiest state?
  • Is the pain being caused by an underlying condition I am not aware of?
  • Will I experience pain throughout the recovery process?
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Medical References:

  1. M. Beers "Merck Manual of Medical Information" 2nd home edition (Pocket Books, 2003) 403-405
  2. Foot Pain & Podiatry Online, http://www.footpain.org
  3. Sports Injury Clinic, Foot Pain, Heel Pain, and Toe Pain, http://www.sportsinjuryclinic.net/cybertherapist/foot_injuries.php
  4. The Ohio State University Medical Center, Foot Pain and Problems, http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/orthopaedics/foot/Pages/index.aspx

This page was last updated on April 13th, 2014



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