Athletic runners, gym fanatics, and employees who are on their feet for an entire shift aren't the only ones experiencing foot pain. Even a bonafide couch potato can unknowingly cause excruciating aches and fiery stinging in their heels, arches, toes, and ankles. Everything from slight irritation to throbbing pain can be brought on by the kinds of shoes you wear, your daily activity, and how you walk. If your "dogs are barking" constantly, you're not the only one: Over 75% of American adults surveyed by the American Podiatric Medical Association say they've suffered through excruciating foot pain previously at some point in their lives.
Feet are complex parts of our body — so many different bones and muscles in play! — and we rely on them a lot during the day. During the COVID-19 pandemic specifically, people have learned firsthand that shoes really do support the soles and balls of our feet as we move about our day. Not wearing shoes for an extended period of time during quarantine, especially if you're working out at home or deep cleaning and remodeling certain rooms, won't support your arch or other tender parts of your foot, says Anne Sharkey, D.P.M., a podiatrist with the North Austin Foot and Ankle Institute in Texas.
It may be difficult (pandemic or not) to understand when you should alert a doctor to your aches and pains, or at least troubleshoot the issue at home beforehand. Dr. Sharkey says those with previous foot conditions or other bone, muscle, or nerve damage elsewhere in the body should always consult a healthcare provider if they experience foot pain. In addition to investing in a good pair of house shoes (just do it!), here are some ways you can combat these common causes of foot pain at home, with advice from a trio of foot experts — and when you should ask a doctor for help.
You are wearing the wrong-sized shoe.
Upwards of 70% of adults are wearing shoes that "did not accommodate either width or length dimensions of their feet," according to a comprehensive review of published research in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research. The same research noticed that the most common issue was shoes that were too narrow for one's feet. Even if you've been purchasing shoes in the same size for most of your life, there's a chance that a different size (or width specification) could alleviate most of the pain you're experiencing, says Neyla Lobkova, D.P.M., of Step-Up Foot Care in New York City. Properly fitted shoes can "reverse damaging effects and adequate support, stabilize, and realign the body," she explains.
How do you know if your shoes are too tight, loose, narrow, or wide? Try mapping out your foot type first: "Step into baby powder and walk across a piece of dark construction paper," Dr. Lobkova advises. "The outline of the bottom of the foot will have a thin profile on someone with a higher arch — whereas a wider footprint suggests a flat foot type." If you compare your shoe to the footprint you've just made and they don't remotely resemble each other, that's a red flag, but it's also an opportunity to discover the structure of your foot to better understand the kinds of shoes you should buy.
You're wearing the wrong kind of shoe.
You know not to wear beach flip flops for a miles-long trek through a nearby park, but you might not realize that your favorite pair of running shoes isn't suited for a trek up a nearby hiking trail. "The shoes you choose must be aligned with the specific activity or requirement," says George Holmes, M.D., a surgeon specializing in foot and ankle operations at Chicago's Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush. Walking shoes might be similar to running shoes in some ways, but each provide different kinds of support, Dr. Holmes says, and in some cases, you may be way off target for what you're doing. And of course, "Tight or pointy women's shoes are for situations that don't require significant walking or standing throughout the workday — and patients with bunions will require shoes with extra room in the toe box," he says. In spite of how fabulous they may look, your office pumps or date night slingbacks might be at fault here.
Try to wear shoes that align with the physical activity you're taking on. And when you're buying, Dr. Sharkey advises purchasing new shoes at the end of the day when your feet are most swollen to "ensure a comfortable fit at all times." Regardless of the shoe profile you're wearing, Dr. Sharkey says they should:
Be able to bend where your toes bend (except for steel toes in work boots).
Not have narrow toe boxes, which lead to bunions, hammertoes, or ingrown nails.
Resist a bend or a full fold at midpoint, since shoes with a functional structural support shouldn't be able to "fold in half with your hands."
You're missing much-needed orthotics.
Never heard of them? You've probably seen them — orthotics are a supplemental support for shoes that "provide the correct biomechanical tilt as well as arch support," Dr. Lobkova explains. While there are store-bought options to consider, custom orthotics made by a professional can pinpoint the exact support you need for multiple activities at multiple durations (from workouts to long afternoons on the job) throughout your day. If your daily routine involves standing on your feet for many hours, an orthotic can help offset the increased pressure on your foot, ankle, and all those joints in between. But even if you are mostly off your feet due to consistent foot pain — no matter the kinds of shoes you're wearing or how long you're actually on your feet —an orthotic from a referred foot specialist could provide you much-needed relief.
You may be battling corns or calluses.
There's a good chance the pain you're experiencing is caused by what's called a corn or, more frequently, calluses around your foot. These blister-like formations develop in reaction to a myriad of issues, but mostly due to ill-fitting shoes or the pressure points on your feet, Dr. Sharkey says. "They're a result of repetitive friction," she explains. Calluses often have cracked, exposed skin that can be irritated by any kind of friction or pressure, whereas smaller corns are inflamed spots on your skin that are very painful when pressed.
Calluses and corns may be addressed by asking a shoe specialist to properly size your foot, or by tossing out a pair of boots, sneakers, or flats that cause friction in a certain area. But some calluses and corns may also be caused by the structure of your foot, and this is a larger problem that should be addressed in a check up.
Your heel isn't being supported.
Dr. Holmes explains that plantar fasciitis, which happens when tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes is majorly inflamed, is the most common source of heel pain. If you're a runner, or are overweight, you may notice a sensation of stabbing pain first thing in the morning when you get out of bed — and it may disappear after a few minutes, only to return later when you start getting active again. "Specific activities such as lunges, jumping, or jogging can be a trigger — sometimes pain is worse at the start of the activity, and tapers off during or following the activity," Dr. Holmes says. The pain is often managed by medication, and there's actually an entire subset of shoes made by brands designed to treat plantar fasciitis. In some cases, you may need orthotics, additional therapy, or minor surgery to relieve the pressure.
Your foot is affected by a plantar's wart.
Unlike corns or calluses, you may not even be able to see a plantar's wart at first; later, a callus may build up around this wart, after you've already suffered much pain. "Plantar warts are warts on the foot caused by the HPV virus; they can be often painful due to their common occurrence on or around weight bearing surfaces," Dr. Sharkey explains. "A callus around the wart will increase pressure and therefore increase the pain."
Usually, a plantar's wart occurs after germs have entered your foot's skin through tiny abrasions, usually while walking barefoot outside. Normally, plantar's warts can go away on their own, but if you've noticed a calloused wart that's causing you severe pain, a foot specialist may give you targeted medication or perform a minor operation depending on how deep the wart is embedded in your skin.
You've developed a bunion.
A bunion is a large, inflamed bump at the joint of the big toe — or conversely, on the other side of the foot on your pinky toe, which is called a bunionette. It will only get worse if you continue to wear the same shoes that caused it to develop, Dr. Holmes explains. Bunions are often caused by shoes that are too tight (often unbeknownst to the wearer) but they become a severe problem when they're left to grow over time, and at some point, they may well need to be surgically removed. "It's best to have surgery early on rather than to wait, because as the bunion worses, the surgery becomes more invasive," says Carly Robbins, DPM, a podiatrist with the Foot & Ankle Specialists of Marysville in Ohio. "Fortunately, if you have them removed, and then wear proper footgear, they usually don't come back."
You're stuck with an ingrown toenail.
Out of everything on this list, this is probably the most visually apparent symptom of foot pain. Usually, ingrown toenails are inflamed, very sensitive, and may also develop calluses or even pus-filled deposits around the toe in question. For those who try to straighten their nails out at home — like soaking in warm water with Epsom salts or white vinegar, or more perilously, cutting nails or rounding them out — an ingrown nail can actually go incognito. A fraction of the nail may continue to grow in your nail bed, and any pressure may cause significant pain, even if there's nothing left to cut away, explains Dr. Robbins. In this case, a podiatrist may have to surgically correct the nail in an office setting to truly cancel out any long-term damage.
You've developed some form of arthritis.
There are multiple forms of foot-related arthritis that could be affecting you — gout, rheumatoid arthritis, or metatarsalgia (arthritis in the big toe), but most cases are age-related (or activity-related for athletes). Wear and tear in your ligaments and tendons over the foot can affect your foot's joints and cause constant pain, Dr. Holmes explains. Often, a foot specialist referred by your healthcare provider will work with you to find the best footwear for you to wear, and in some cases, physical therapy may be necessary to manage this wear and tear overtime.
You've lost, or gained, some weight.
Yes, really — the weight of your body is distributed across the soles of your feet each day, so if your body weight has changed, your feet will respond, says Bela Pandit, DPM, a foot and ankle surgeon with her own practice in Illinois. "For every 10 pounds that you gain or lose, the muscles in your feet either expand or contract, so the shoes you were wearing before may be giving you too little support, or too much entirely," she explains. Orthotics may help alleviate discomfort caused by weight gain or loss until your feet have adjusted appropriately.
You have an underlying condition.
Each pair of feet are different, and sometimes, pain is brought on by a holistic health issue that has nothing to do with physical activity or shoe choice. Diabetes, for one, can lead to circulation issues, nerve pain, and muscle and joint deterioration, often influenced by your blood sugar. Another often overlooked possibility is hormones produced during pregnancy; Dr. Robbins explains that hormones designed to help your ligaments relax and prepare for childbirth are naturally released when you're expecting.
If you can't pinpoint one of the reasons on this list as the cause of your foot pain, it's time to speak with your primary healthcare provider, who can help you get to the bottom of why your feet always hurt.
*With additional reporting by Elizabeth Durand Streisand.
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