Why Do My Feet Hurt?

At a glance:

  • There are 28 bones, 30 joints and over 100 tendons, ligaments and muscles in an adult foot.
  • It is estimated that people will walk around 120,000km by the time they are 50.
  • A number of foot health conditions may be caused by ill-fitting shoes or high impact activities such as sports or dancing.
  • A podiatrist is a doctor specialising in foot, ankle and lower limb health and conditions.

Each foot is made up of 28 bones, 30 joints and over 100 tendons, ligaments and muscles. Over one quarter of all bones in the human body are found in the feet. Given the complexity of the foot and the amount of pressure we put on them through everyday activities, it’s surprising that people tend to ignore foot problems until they become severe. 

Given that many people spend a huge amount of time on their feet for work, leisure or exercise, taking care of the health of your feet is vital. Most people will walk an estimated 120,000km by the time they are 50. It’s recommended that tyres be checked every 10,000-50,000km and resurfaced, balanced or replaced if needs be. 

We can’t easily replace our feet, but we can take care of them. Buying well fitting, appropriate shoes is one way to help take care of your feet, but in some cases, you may have to see a specialist known as a podiatrist.

Common Foot Problems

With the complexity of the foot and the amount of stress they can be put under from walking, standing, exercising and the like, it’s no wonder that there are a number of common foot injuries and ailments that can lead to discomfort, pain or even a loss of mobility.

Common foot problems include:

  • Arthritis - Arthritis is the inflammation of one or more joints. Given the large number of joints in the foot it’s no wonder that foot and ankle arthritis is common. There is no cure for arthritis but the condition and the pain it causes may be managed through treatment and care allowing people with arthritis in their feet to remain active.  Ensuring the muscles and tendons are strong and functioning well can reduce the pressure on the joints, and thus, reduce the pain. 
  • Athlete’s Foot (Tinea Pedis) - a contagious fungal condition may lead to itching, burning or painful feet as well as blisters, cracked or raw skin and brittle, crumbling toenails. Tinea may be treated with over the counter medication, but severe cases may need prescription medication and specialist care.
  • Bunions - a bunion (a large bony bump on the outside of your big toe) is a sequelae of hallux valgus, a condition that causes your big toe to bend inwards towards your other toes, making it painful to walk and potentially causing irritation or inflammation of your second toe as well. Bunions may be caused by genetics, wearing poorly fitted or inappropriate shoes or simply standing for too long. 
  • Bursitis - Joints, as well as connections between bones and tendons contain small sacs of fluid known as bursas that help protect against friction. Repetitive motion or irritation may cause bursitis - an inflammation of these sacs. Any joint may develop bursitis, but in the feet it is most common in the toes and heel.
  • Corns and Calluses - both corns and calluses are thickened, painful areas of skin that are caused by pressure or friction. The corns or calluses form to protect the underlying tissues but may cause pain or discomfort instead. Calluses occur on weight bearing areas (like the heel or ball of the foot) and are generally larger and harder than corns.  Corns are usually found on the top or side of the toes and typically have either a hard or rubbery head surrounded by inflamed skin. Methods to treat corns and calluses range from home remedies to surgical measures.   If you’ve noticed a change in the way you walk, the shape of your feet or experience regular foot pain it may be time to book an appointment to see a podiatrist or physiotherapist.
  • Diabetes - people living with diabetes need to monitor their feet for any changes in sensation, as the condition may damage nerves. Damage to the nerves in the feet is known as diabetic neuropathy and may lead to tingling, numbness and difficulties with balance.  Diabetes may also cause problems with circulation to extremities, making it hard for injuries to heal. The combination of poor circulation and a loss of sensation may lead to ulceration, infection and in some cases, amputation.
  • Dry and Cracked Heels - many factors may lead to the skin on your heels becoming thickened, dry, cracked and sometimes painful, such as genetics, obesity, poorly fitted shoes, age, pressure, poor hygiene and more. 
  • Fallen Arches (Flat Feet) - flat feet occur when the arch usually present in feet flattens. In some people, the fallen arches cause no difficulties, but in others it may lead to pain in the heel or arch, or discomfort in the legs, hips or lower back due to the changes in gait caused by the flattening of your feet. 

Flat feet may be caused by the feet not developing properly in childhood, injury, age, obesity, diabetes or plain wear and tear.  Flat feel alone is not a pathology, and should only be addressed if it is causing pain and dysfunction.

  • Gait Problems - A number of different conditions may affect the way a person walks (their gait), but even when the feet are not the cause of a change in gait they may be affected. A change in gait may be a sign of injury to the feet or legs, shin splints, gout, tendonitis, infection and more.
  • Gout - a condition caused by having an increased uric acid level in the body which then crystalises in the joints. Gout frequently affects the largest joint in the big toe or the ankle. The buildup of uric acid crystals may lead to intense pain or discomfort, sometimes described as burning.  Attacks may last a few days to a few weeks, with the worst pain occurring within the first 12 or so hours. If left untreated, gout may lead to permanent joint damage.
  • Hammer or Claw Toes - hammer toes are a deformity usually found in the second or third toe that causes it to curl down rather than point forward. Hammer toes may be present from birth but typically develop over time due to arthritis, injury or wearing tight, pointed toed shoes. The condition may cause discomfort or pain while walking and may also increase the risk of developing bunions, calluses and corns.  Claw toes are a common condition associated with nerve damage caused by alcoholism or diabetes. This causes a toe to curve up at the first joint and forward at the second, giving them a claw-like appearance. Claw toes increase the risk of developing corns.
  • Heel Spurs - a heel spur is a bone-like calcium deposit that grows between the heel bone and arch. These deposits are the result of long term muscle or ligament strain stressing the heel bone, and is usually the result of an untreated plantar fasciitis.  The muscle and ligament strain may be caused by a number of factors, including arthritis, injury, gait problems, repetitive stress, weight problems, and ill-fitted shoes.
  • High Arches (Cavus Foot) - a typical foot has a slight arch between the heel and ball, but in some people this arch is especially pronounced, potentially leading to a number of complications including pain, hammer and claw toes, plantar fasciitis and more. Some people are born with high arches, but they can also be a symptom of other conditions including muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, stroke and more. 
  • Ingrown Toenails - your big toe is most likely to develop an ingrown nail, a condition in which the side of the nail grows into the skin, causing inflammation, redness and pain. People active in sports, dancers and those with poor foot hygiene are more at risk of developing ingrown toenails than the general public.  
  • Nail Infections - the feet are an ideal environment for fungal infection as they are frequently warm and moist. Fungal infections of the nails may lead to brittle, striated, thickened or yellow toenails as well as nails lifting from their beds and pain. People with diabetes need to be especially careful about infections as peripheral vascular and nerve damage may lead to serious complications from infection.
  • Neuromas - a neuroma is a benign growth of nerve tissue typically found between the third and fourth toes. Neuromas may cause pain, swelling or sensations including tingling, numbness or burning. Trauma, ill fitting shoes, high arches or repeated stress from work or leisure activities such as sports or dance may all lead to the development of neuromas.
  • Plantar Fasciitis - the plantar fascia is a length of strong ligament that runs along the bottom of the foot. This ligament connects the heel and toes and creates the arch in the foot. Stress to this ligament is referred to as plantar fasciitis and is a common cause of heel pain. A number of factors may lead to plantar fasciitis, including high impact activities like sport and dance, standing for long periods, age, being overweight, pregnancy, high arches, flat feet and wearing shoes with poor arch support.  Left unmanaged, this can lead to a heel spur.
  • Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis - psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes the rapid buildup of skin cells leading to red, thickened and scaly skin. This thickened skin may crack and bleed or peel off, leading to itching and pain. Psoriasis may affect any part of the body including the soles of the feet and toes.  Psoriasis may also cause inflammation of the joint. This is known as psoriatic arthritis. Around one third of people with psoriasis develop psoriatic arthritis.  
  • Shin Splints - also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints describes pain along the shin bone caused by excess force being applied to the shin, due to an overload of the tibialis posterior and flexor hallicus longus muscles, leading to inflammation of these muscles or even tiny cracks in the bone. This excess stress on the shin may be caused by a number of factors including ill fitting shoes, problems with gait, running on uneven or sloped surfaces, a rapid increase in running volume, or playing sports that require frequent and sudden stops and starts (like soccer or tennis).  Left untreated, this can lead to stress fractures or compartment syndrome.
  • Smelly Feet - many people may have rather stinky feet when they take off their shoes after a long day, but if the smell lingers no matter how much you wash them, there may be a problem. Foul smelling feet may be a sign of infection.
  • Sprains - an ankle sprain occurs when the ligaments that support the joint are stretched or torn, usually due to rotation or rolling of the foot. Depending on the severity of the sprain, symptoms may include swelling, pain and difficulty walking. Sprains may occur in any joint, so sprains throughout the feet are incredibly common.
  • Warts - warts on the feet may be referred to as plantar warts. These skin growths are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus) entering through small cuts or abrasions on the sole of the foot, typically in weight-bearing areas like the heel and ball. These warts may grow outwards forming small masses of hardened or grainy skin, or inwards, leading to calluses. Warts may cause no discomfort or may lead to pain whilst walking or standing.

You only get one set of feet, so you need to take care of them. The easiest and most effective way to find a podiatrist or physiotherapist near you is to search and book online with MyHealth1st.

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