How to manage the most common foot problems

Each of our feet has 42 muscles with tendons, 26 bones, 33 joints, and at least 50 ligaments made of strong fibrous tissues to keep all the moving parts together … in addition to 250,000 sweat glands. Our feet are evolutionary marvels, capable of handling hundreds of tons of force — your weight in motion — every day. The foot’s many parts, including the toes, heel, and ball, work in harmony to get you from one place to another. The stress of carrying you around puts your feet at high risk for injury, more so than other parts of your body, which is why everyone needs to know what to do when there is pain or discomfort in the foot, and when to seek professional help. Many foot problems can develop due to neglect, ill-fitting shoes, and simple wear and tear. Your feet also can indicate if your body is under threat from a serious disease, just as your eyes can reveal health problems upon examination. Here are some of the most common foot problems most of us encounter in our lifetime: Athlete’s Foot is caused by a fungus that likes warm, dark, and moist environments like the areas between the toes or on the bottoms of the feet. It can inflame the skin and cause a rash. The athlete’s foot fungus can also cause itching, burning, peeling, and sometimes an odor; the infection can also migrate to other body parts. You can avoid athlete’s foot (also called tinea pedis) by keeping your feet and toes clean and dry and by changing your shoes and socks regularly. Over-the-counter antifungal creams or sprays can be used to treat athlete’s foot. If these remedies do not work, however, you may need to see a podiatrist to rule out other conditions that may be present.

If your second, third, or fourth toe is crossed, bent in the middle of the toe joint, or just pointing at an odd angle, you may have what’s called a hammertoe — which are developmental and often caused by ill-fitting shoes. Early on, wearing inserts or foot pads can help reposition your toe, which later can become fixed in the bent position. Pain then sets in and you may need surgery. Because hammertoes are bent, corns and calluses often form on them. If you treat these early on, with padding and by modifying the shoes you wear, you can stop the progression and avoid more severe problems.

If your shoes fit well, you won't have blisters — soft pockets of raised skin filled with clear fluid. Blisters are often painful and can make walking difficult. It’s important not to pick at them and let the blister heal on its own. If a blister breaks though, clean the area thoroughly, cover with antibiotic ointment, and use a bandage. Then see what footwear caused the blisters and either add padding to it when you wear it or stop wearing those shoes. See a podiatrist for the best plan of care for blisters.

A bunion is a crooked big-toe joint that sticks out at the base of the toe, forcing the big toe to turn. Bunions have various causes, including congenital deformities, arthritis, trauma, and heredity. A bunion can be painful when confined in a shoe, and for many people, shoes that are too narrow in the toe may be to blame for the faster formation of bunions. Surgery is recommended as a last resort. Conservative treatment methods should always be tried first, and there are several non-surgical treatment options that can be successful.

Corns and calluses form after repeated rubbing against a bony area of the foot or against a shoe. Corns appear on the tops, tips and sides of your toes as well as between your toes. Calluses form on the bottom of the foot, especially under the heels or balls, and on the sides of toes. These compressed patches of dead skin cells can become hard and painful. To relieve the pain, you may want to try placing moleskin or padding around corns and calluses. Don’t try to cut or remove corns and calluses yourself — a podiatrist can safely and gently reduce them and help you position moleskin or padding to hopefully help them reduce and go away on their own. Heel spurs and plantar fasciitis both cause heel pain. Heel spurs are found in 70 percent of patients with plantar fasciitis, but these are two different conditions. Plantar fasciitis is a painful disorder in which the tissue — the fascia — that connects the ball of the foot to the heel becomes inflamed. Heel spurs are pieces of bone that grow at the heel bone bottom and often develop with plantar fasciitis. The heel spurs themselves are not painful; it's the inflammation and irritation caused by plantar fasciitis that can hurt. Heel spurs are often seen on X-rays of patients who do not have heel pain or plantar fasciitis. It is best to let a podiatrist diagnose the source of the pain so that you can successfully treat the proper condition. Gout is a type of arthritis caused by a build-up of uric acid in joint tissues and joint fluid, which happens when the body is unable to keep uric acid levels in check. One of the first places for this build-up to occur is in the big toe joint. You’ll know a gout attack when it happens: The toe will get hot, red, and swollen and will be very painful to even the slightest touch. The best way to prevent a gout attack is to learn to identify triggers, including high-purine foods, red meat, seafood and alcohol. See your podiatrist and internist as soon as possible for proper ongoing management. The right way to clip toenails is straight across. If you don’t cut them properly, the corners or sides of the nail can dig into skin and become ingrown. Other causes of ingrown toenails include shoe pressure, fungus infection, and even poor foot structure. When you cut your toenails, use larger toenail clippers and avoid cutting nails too short, as this can also cause ingrown toenails or infection. Toenail fungus can give nails an unattractive, deformed appearance. It can alter the nail’s color and spread to other nails, even fingernails. Avoiding toenail fungus is difficult, especially if you walk through wet areas where people tend to go barefoot, such as locker rooms and swimming pools. People with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or immune deficiency diseases are especially vulnerable and may want to follow a plan of care by your podiatrist.