Everything you need to know about the health of your feet, and how to keep them in tip-top shape.
Our feet are often the most neglected part of our body, yet they carry us on a journey of 128,000 km, or more, in a lifetime – the equivalent of walking three times around the world. Here, you’ll find out everything you need to know about foot health, and the steps you can take to keep your hardworking feet in good shape all year round.
Your feet have a total of 52 bones, (which is more than a quarter of all the bones in your body), 66 joints and a network of 200 muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and nerves. These all work together to support your body, absorb the impact of your weight and help you move.
Here are the most common foot conditions, what you can do to help manage them, and how you can prevent problems from occurring.
Bent, bumpy, twisted or sore toes often indicate larger structural problems. Treatment depends on the severity of the problem, and the amount of pain it causes you.
A bunion is a bony bump that forms when your big toe pushes against your next toe, forcing the joint of your big toe to get bigger and stick out. The first sign you have a bunion may be difficulty putting on tight shoes. The big toe joint carries a lot of the body’s weight when we walk, so bunions can cause extreme pain if left untreated.
If you often wear tight, narrow or high-heeled shoes, you are at risk of getting bunions.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Stick to properly-fitted shoes and avoid shoes with a pointy toe. Treatments for bunions include:
• Topical anti-inflammatory medication to ease swelling.
• Wearing wider or deeper shoes.
• Padding and taping. Your podiatrist will show you how to do this to reduce stress and alleviate discomfort.
• Orthotics may be used to redistribute your weight to stop the bunion rubbing against your shoe.
• Surgery to realign the joint.
Claw toe often affects the four smaller toes at the same time. The toes bend up at the joint where the toes meet the foot.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
See your podiatrist who may fix the issue by recommending the following:
• A splint or tape may be used to hold your toes in the correct position.
• Physiotherapy may help.
• If you have claw toe in the later stages and your toes are in a fixed position, a special pad can redistribute your weight and relieve pressure.
• Surgery is usually only recommended as an option when other treatments are shown to be ineffective.
CLAW TOE EXERCISES
• Use your hands to stretch your toes and toe joints toward their normal positions every day.
• Use your toes to pick up marbles, or to crumple a towel laid flat on the floor.
Healthy nails are usually smooth and consistent in colour, but ingrown toenails, infections and nail deformities are all quite common and can increase as we age.
Nails left to grow too long can thicken, become hard and start growing into the surrounding skin. To help keep your nails in good shape:
• Use a strong pair of clean nail clippers.
• Trim toenails straight across.
• Avoid cutting nails too close to the skin or into the corners.
• After clipping, smoothen your nails with a file or emery board, using downward strokes.
TREAT YOUR NAILS
Although there are some things you can do at home to deal with toenail problems, professional care may also be needed.
An ingrown toenail – most often on the big toe – develops when the side of the nail digs into the skin of the toe. This can lead to pain and inflammation, and sometimes infection.
If you suffer ingrown toenails you can probably blame your genes because they often run in families. Incorrect trimming technique, shoes that are too tight or too short, or trauma to the foot may cause an ingrown toenail.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Ingrown toenails should be treated straight away. Don’t attempt to dig out a badly ingrown toenail yourself – see a podiatrist. Simple things such as soaking the foot in warm water three to four times daily, keeping the foot clean and dry the rest of the time, and wearing well-fitting shoes that do not press hard against your toes should help clear up milder cases.
Toenail fungal infections can look very unsightly, be difficult to treat and repeat infections are common. The infection is usually spread from the surrounding skin. Signs of nail infection include nail thickening or crumbling, discolouration, separation of the front of the nail from the nail bed, pain in your toes and an unpleasant odour.
In some cases, infections can cause pain, redness, swelling and, sometimes, discharge around the area from where the nail grows, and also from the skin next to the nail.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Prompt attention is needed in order to reduce the risk of serious complications including more widespread infection extending up the leg. Your podiatrist may recommend topical and oral preparations, as well as removal of the infected part of the nail.
DEFORMED, THICKENED OR BRITTLE NAILS
These can result from injury to the nail bed, such as stopping something heavy on your toes, toe-stubbing, wearing shoes that cramp your toes or a fungal infection. Skin conditions like psoriasis may also affect the nails, and cause unnatural thickening.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
See your podiatrist regularly. Deformed, thickened or brittle toenails can benefit from proper grooming, including regular trimming, shaping and nail care.
HEELS THAT HURT
Heel pain can develop suddenly or evolve gradually over time. Certain conditions can lead to strain on the heel bone and the soft tissues attached to it, resulting in pain. Heels usually hurt most first thing in the morning, or after a period of rest.
The plantar fascia is a band of tissue that runs along the sole of your foot from the heel to the middle foot bones. If tissue is damaged or torn by too much pressure, it can lead to plantar fasciitis.
• Certain sports. Activities that place a lot of stress on the heel bone, like running or dancing.
• Flat feet or high arches. These conditions may increase strain on the plantar fascia.
• Being middle aged or older. Heel pain tends to be more common with ageing.
• Being overweight. Excess weight places a greater mechanical load on the plantar fascia.
• Being on your feet. Occupations that require a lot of walking or standing on hard surfaces may lead to plantar fascia pain in the long run.
• Wearing shoes with poor arch support or stiff soles. Poorly designed shoes may contribute to the problem.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The condition usually improves on its own within a year, but you can control symptoms with:
• Night splints to hold the plantar fascia and the Achilles tendon in a lengthened position overnight.
• Orthotics to help distribute pressure to the feet more evenly, and to stimulate the small foot muscles.
• A physiotherapist can give instruction on a series of exercises to stretch the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon and to strengthen lower leg muscles, which stabilises the ankle and heel.
A heel spur is a bony growth under the heel bone that can only be seen on X-ray.
They occur when calcium deposits build up as a result of excessive stress on the heel bone, ligaments and nerves near the heel. Causes include:
• Problems with how the feet function.
• Frequent running on hard surfaces.
• Non-supportive footwear.
• Being overweight or obese.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The best plan of action is rest, inflammation control and specific stretches and massage techniques your podiatrist can teach you.
CALLUSES AND CORNS
A callus is an area of hard, thickened skin on the foot that forms in response to pressure or friction, usually through poor-fitting shoes. When pressure on the foot is concentrated in a small area, a corn, which has a central core, may develop.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
• Have your shoes properly fitted next time you shop.
• Soak your feet regularly and apply moisturiser daily to soften existing calluses and corns.
• Wear a foam pad over the corn to help relieve the pressure.
• For corns on the toes, small foam wedges are useful for relieving pressure.
• Consult a podiatrist who will check for abnormalities or deformity in bone structure and decide if you need orthotics to relieve pressure on certain areas of the foot.
TIP: Don’t cut corns or calluses yourself, as infection can easily develop and small cuts can quickly become serious wounds.
Cracked heels are the result of dry skin, which can be exacerbated by wearing open-backed shoes like sandals or thongs, increased weight, or friction on your heels caused by ill-fitting shoes or by wearing shoes without socks. Symptoms range from minor cracks in the skin’s surface to deep, painful crevices that may bleed or even become infected.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
• Apply moisturiser to your feet and heels daily.
• Wear sandals or shoes with enclosed heels where possible, and avoid the prolonged use of thongs or walking around in bare feet.
• Consult a podiatrist immediately if you notice a lot of thick, hard skin or painful, open cracks.
THERAPY FOR YOUR FEET
Some podiatrists will make use of the foot mobilisation technique (FMT) to treat conditions like heel pain, claw toe and bunions. Foot and ankle joints that are stiff and lack normal movement often develop because of the foot not functioning correctly over many years.
FMT can improve movement of these joints, but it’s not a quick fix treatment option and a number of visits will usually be needed.
How To Prevent Heel Pain
Here are certain things you can do to help avoid plantar fasciitis and heel spurs
IF THE SHOE FITS
Shoes that don’t fit properly are a major source of many foot problems. Follow these tips for the perfect fit:
1 Shop at the end of the day; feet are at their largest then.
2 Shoes should never need to be ‘broken in’ – if they are not immediately comfortable, they don’t fit the shape of your foot.
3 Shoes should be wide and deep enough so you can freely wiggle your toes. If the outline of your feet is visible against your shoes, they are a poor fit.
4 Shoes should not feel loose. Heels should not slip out of shoes, and feet and toes should not have to work to hold your shoes in place.
5 Alternate shoes – don’t wear the same shoes two days in a row. Let them breathe so they won’t collect moisture and develop fungus.
6 Decide on feel, not numbers – shoe sizes vary between different styles and brands. When trying on shoes, walk around to ensure that they feel comfortable.
7 Choose shoes with uppers made from breathable material and synthetic or rubber soles for shock-absorbency.
8 Have feet measured before you buy. Foot size changes with age and weight. One foot tends to be larger than the other, so buy shoes to fit the larger foot.
9 Allow 1 cm of space between your longest toe and the inside tip of the shoe or toe box.
6 Daily Habits For Tip-Top Feet
Focusing on your feet for a few minutes every day will help keep them healthy and avoid or prevent many foot problems
1 Wash feet each day to reduce risk of infection.
2 Dry feet well to avoid fungi, which thrive in warm, moist conditions.
3 Wear wellfitting shoes.
4 Avoid tight socks or stockings and change them daily.
5 Skin cancer can occur anywhere on the foot, so apply sunscreen if you’re barefoot or in open shoes.
6 Watch for redness, swelling, blisters, rough or dry patches of skin, bumps, sores, moles, freckles and discolouration under the nail. Seek professional help if concerned.
ARE YOU THE SPORTY TYPE?
• When buying sports shoes, it is important to know your foot type. The shape of your foot – for instance, if it’s higharched, flat or pronating – will determine the type of shoe that will serve you best. If in doubt, ask your podiatrist for advice.
• If you are a runner, you will need to ensure that your footwear is up to scratch by replacing shoes regularly, sometimes every few months. Depending on the distances you run and your shoe type, shockabsorbing padding can wear thin and become ineffective with heavy use.
• For all sports shoes, tread should be checked regularly to prevent slips and falls.
WHAT SHAPE IS YOUR FOOT?
The Sole Clinic www.thesoleclinic.com.
The Foot Practice www.thefootpractice.com, 6909 0117.
Osteopathy & Podiatry Centre www.osteopathy-podiatry.com, 6734 4236.
Family Podiatry Centre www.familypodiatrycentre.com/sg, 6464 8654.
TEXT: BAUERSYNDICATION.COM.AU / PHOTO:S 123RF.COM