If there is one body part we tend to neglect, it’s our feet. When it comes to foot pain, many of us put it on the back-burner rather than seeking medical attention.
“Heel and foot pain is a common issue that is often left to the point of being very stressful,” says Dr Helen Banwell, podiatry academic at the University of South Australia and a member of the Australian Podiatry Association.
“Often called plantar fasciitis, people really struggle with what we call ‘first step pain,’ which is where it hurts to put your foot down when you first get up and so you need to hobble for the first few steps.”
This usually starts out as just a small ache, but people ignore it for so long that they are often struggling to walk by the time they seek help.
“Seeing a podiatrist early means we can help you get rid of the problem before it affects your ability to walk,” says Helen.
Here are some major causes of foot pain, and how to deal with them…
Treating foot pain caused by bunions
According to Helen, bunions are a slow dislocation of the joint of the big toe.
“It involves the big toe bone moving towards the lesser toes whilst the bone closer to the ankle that makes up the other half of the joint moves in the opposite direction.”
Unfortunately, most bunions are hereditary and the only way to correct them is surgery.
“However, wearing shoes that don’t put pressure on our toes and using soft padding can slow down their development and make them less painful.”
How to deal with fungus
When it comes to the dreaded fungal nail infection, “prevention is easier than cure, so keep your feet dry and clean as much as possible and treat any fungal skin infections quickly,” says Helen, noting that ‘athlete’s foot’ (or tinea pedis) is where most fungal nail infections originate.
“The most effective cures involve seeing your GP for a prescription drug, or heading to the pharmacy for medicated nail paint,” says Helen.
If you want to try a more conservative approach, first make sure you have a fungal infection and not something else.
“It will either be a fluffy white patch that appears on top of nails or yellow streaking under the nail,” she says.
Next, you can use apple cider vinegar soaks for a few minutes every second day (re-use the vinegar until it becomes murky), or tea tree oil which has some effect on reducing fungal infection spread and can be applied directly to the nail.
And be patient, says Helen: “Fungal nail infections take a long time to go as they need to ‘grow out’ after the infection as stopped being active.”
Finding a shoe that fits
Up to 70 per cent of us are wearing shoes that don’t fit.
“Most women wear shoes that are too narrow,” says Helen, noting this cramps joints and can reduce motion by up to 30 per cent. It also leads to calluses, corns, and foot pain.
The big issue, she says, is that most shoes are a B-width fitting and “it’s estimated only 10 per cent of Australians have feet of this width. Those with wider feet need appropriately sized shoes.”
The idea that out feet get bigger with age isn’t always correct, says Sydney-based podiatrist Charlotte Bodell.
“When you have bare feet or wear unsupportive shoes like thongs or slippers, the muscles in your arch are not being exercised so the foot flattens. It might seem like it’s grown, but really your foot muscles are weak.”
Strengthen them with simple arch crunch exercises:
- Sit with foot flat on the floor and scrunch up your toes so you increase your arch.
- Repeat several times.
- Follow with single and double calf raises, which help strengthen feet too.
And wear structured shoes more often.
Prevent foot pain by looking after your heels
Our heels are happiest in shoes and socks. In summer, when we wear sandals or go barefoot, heel skin builds up to protect the fat pad and bone.
“There’s a huge amount of force passing through the heel, so the body goes into protection mode,” Charlotte Bodell explains.
File feet weekly after bathing, and once a month, go to bed for a week in heel balm and socks.
My favourites are fast-absorbing foams from a podiatrist, or formulas with 20 to 30 per cent urea from the chemist.”
If heels crack, a podiatrist can remove callused areas, or put blister Band-Aids over them.
“This keeps moisture in and bacteria out while skin heals.”