Common Foot Problems
The average person walks about 100,000 miles during their lifetime, claims the College of Podiatry – that’s the equivalent of walking around the earth five times, which is tough on your feet (i). Indeed, the human foot – with its 26 bones and 33 joints – is one of the body’s most intricate – and hard-working – structures.
Yet a College of Podiatry report suggests six in 10 people experience foot problems, with just 13 per cent of the population giving their feet the care and attention they need (ii). Hard skin, blisters, athlete’s foot, ingrown toenails, corns and calluses are just some of the problems that affect many of us.
Some experts believe that people’s choice of footwear is one of the biggest causes of foot problems, with many selecting fashion before comfort (iii). Badly fitting shoes can lead to a number of foot ailments, including blisters, hard skin, corns, calluses and bunions. High heels can cause postural problems too, as they increase the pressure on the foot, ankle and knee joints.
To find shoes that fit properly, try the following:
Buy shoes in the afternoon, as this is when feet are at their biggest as they swell throughout the day.
Try on both shoes and walk around the shop to check if they pinch or rub.
Make sure there is 1cm between the longest toe and the end of the shoe.
Buy shoe styles to suit the shape of your foot – if your big toe is the longest, choose a tapered style; if your second or third toe is longer than your big toe, go for rounded shoes; and if all your toes are of equal length, opt for square designs.
Choose shoes with heels no higher than 3cm for everyday wear.
Treating common infections
To keep your feet healthy, it’s important to check them regularly for signs of foot or nail infections such as athlete’s foot, verrucas and fungal nail infections.
Athlete’s foot is caused by a fungal infection and mainly affects the skin between the toes, making it red, flaky and itchy. The good news is the infection can be easily treated with over-the-counter antifungal treatments and natural remedies.
Verrucas are a type of wart that develop on the soles of the feet. And while they may be harmless, they can cause pain if you get them in weight-bearing places such as the heels or balls of your feet. There’s information on treating verrucas in our guide to warts and veruccas.
Meanwhile, both athlete’s foot and verruca infections can be caught in public places such as swimming pool changing rooms and showers. So if you’re planning to go to any public pools, protect your feet by wearing pool sandals or flip flops when you’re in the changing rooms and walking to the pool.
Fungal nail infections are the most common problems that can affect what your fingernails or toenails look like, making them thick, discoloured, crumbly or brittle. They too can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal treatments – but if you have a more severe infection, you may need stronger treatments on prescription from your GP. If you’d like to learnmore information on fungal nail infections, why not read our article?
If you have a foot or nail infection, there’s a variety of treatments available. Ask your pharmacist about products such as creams, sprays and powders for athlete’s foot, verruca treatments and products to treat fungal nail infections.
Bunions, corns, calluses and hard skin
According to the College of Podiatry, more than 15 per cent of women in the UK suffer from bunions (iv). A bunion is a deformity of the joint at the base of the big toe that’s often caused – or made worse – by arthritis or badly-fitting shoes (this may explain why they’re more common in women than men, thanks to the type of shoes worn by women).
Bunions can, however, also run in families, and according to the NHS they can also affect people with unusually flexible joints – which may explain why they’re sometimes found in children (v). Health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout may also lead to bunions.
If you have a bunion – or hallux valgus – your big toe points in towards your second toe, which can force the bone in the foot that’s attached to the big toe to stick out, causing a lump near the big toe on the side of the foot. This can cause pain and swelling in the big toe joint, and the skin covering the bunion may be sore and red. Having a big lump on the side of your foot can also make it difficult to find shoes that fit.
How to treat them
There are lots of products you can buy over the counter that may help provide relief from bunions. These non-surgical treatments include pain relief medicines, orthotics (specially designed insoles) and bunion pads. Ice packs may also be useful if your toe joint is particularly swollen and painful.
But while these treatments may help make your feet feel more comfortable, they can’t remove bunions or make them look better. The only way to correct or stop a bunion from getting worse is to have surgery. To qualify for surgery, however, your bunion must be causing a significant amount of pain and must be severely affecting your quality of life.
Ask your GP for more information about bunion surgery, which is usually performed as an outpatient procedure (this means you shouldn’t have to stay in hospital overnight).
Corns and calluses
Both corns and calluses are caused by pressure or friction, often by wearing badly fitting shoes or certain types of shoes, or standing for long periods of time. Corns are round areas of thickened skin, usually found on the tops or sides of your toes; while calluses are hard, rough areas of skin that can be yellowish in colour and tend to be much bigger than corns, while usually found on the soles of the feet. Both can cause discomfort when you walk or stand.
There are five types of corns, with hard and soft corns the most common. Hard corns consist of small areas of hard skin the size of a small pea within a larger area of thickened skin. Soft corns, on the other hand, are white and rubbery looking, and often develop in areas of moist skin such as between the toes. The other types of corns are seed corns, vascular corns and fibrous corns.
How to treat them
If you have corns or calluses, you can treat them yourself by using a pumice stone or foot file to gently remove the hard skin when you’re in the bath or shower, and by moisturising your feet regularly to keep the skin hydrated (suitable hard skin creams are widely available over the counter). Corn plasters are also available, but can be problematic to use, since they contain acids that can affect the healthy skin that surrounds the corn, and even cause infection. Corn plasters are also unsuitable for people with diabetes.
Most importantly, never try to cut out a corn or callus yourself, as you could make the problem worse. Corns and calluses can be removed this way, but only by a podiatrist.
Parts of the foot – particularly the heels – can be particularly susceptible to becoming hard, dry and even cracked. They can be a particular problem during the summer months, when wearing sandals, flip flops and other open-backed shoes causes friction around the edge of the heels. And if the skin starts to become cracked, it can be quite painful.
How to treat them
Prevention is the best course of action when it comes to hard skin. So moisturise your feet regularly and use a pumice stone or foot file in the bath or shower. Special heel balms are available over the counter that contain effective hydrating ingredients – these should be used two or three times a day until the skin is back to normal.
If the problem gets worse, you may need to see a podiatrist to cut away the hard skin or for a prescription for stronger moisturising treatments. Some severe cases may also require the cracked skin to be strapped with a bandage or other dressing to allow the feet to heal. In cases where the cracks in the skin are severe, a podiatrist may be able to use a special tissue glue to hold the edges of the cracks together.
Blisters, foot odour, ingrown toenails and fallen arches
According to one survey, blisters are the most common foot problem suffered by women, followed by cracked heels, verrucas, corns, ingrown toenails, athlete’s foot, bunions, joint problems, foot odour and arthritis (vi).
Blisters are little pockets of fluid in the upper layers of your skin that develop when your shoes rub your feet (other things that can cause blisters are excessive moisture, foot deformities and when wrinkled socks cause pressure against the skin).
How to treat them
Most blisters don’t need any treatment as they should heal naturally in three to seven days (though you can help protect them against further damage by using blister plasters, which are available over the counter). Allow the fluid to drain by itself, and wash it with mild soap and water. If the blister was caused by a certain pair of shoes, try to avoid wearing them again until it heals.
Meanwhile it’s never a good idea to burst a blister yourself, as it could cause an infection. Instead, let the blister heal on its own (the skin will peel off on its own once the skin underneath has healed).
However, see your GP or podiatrist if you have diabetes and find a blister on your feet. Also seek medical advice if your blister is very big (your GP, for instance, may be able to decompress the blister under sterile conditions).
Your feet may not always smell fragrant because they sweat – something most people have encountered from time to time. Some people, on the other hand, are affected by persistent sweaty feet, which can be highly embarrassing, not to mention uncomfortable. The fact is that the feet tend to sweat more than other areas of the body, possibly because they contain around 250,000 sweat glands. And if your feet sweat more than is considered normal, the problem could be caused by overactive sweat glands – or the cause could be genetic.
How to treat them
If you have an occasional or regular problem with foot odour, wash and dry your feet at least once a day – including before you go to bed – and take care to dry properly between your toes. If washing your feet with ordinary soap doesn’t do the trick, try using an antibacterial soap or an over-the-counter foot hygiene product. After washing and drying, use a hydrating foot cream to keep the skin moisturised.
Wear clean socks made from at least 70 percent cotton or wool every day, and try not to wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row (alternate them on a daily basis so they can dry out). You could also try socks that are designed to keep your feet dry – such as sports socks – or socks that have been treated with antibacterial chemicals to help prevent the bacteria that cause the bad smell. And try avoiding socks made from man-made fibres, as they can make your feet sweat more.
Other things you could do include using medicated insoles and avoiding wearing shoes that don’t breathe, such as pairs made of plastic or other non-porous materials. Wherever possible, wear sandals in the summer too and go barefoot regularly when you’re at home (however, never walk barefoot if you have diabetes).
If, however, you have an extreme problem with sweaty feet, you may need a medical treatment such as electrical stimulation (lontophoresis) or Botox injections (ask your GP or podiatrist for details).
If the side of one of your toenails grows into the surrounding skin and pierces the skin, it’s called an ingrown (or ingrowing) toenail. It may not sound like much of a problem, but an ingrown toenail – frequently the toenail on the big toe – can become swollen and cause pain and tenderness when you put pressure on the toe. An ingrown toenail may also cause a build-up of fluid in the area around the toe, and you may find a discharge of white or yellow pus coming from the affected area (if this happens, it’s a sign that the toenail has become infected).
Experts believe ingrown toenails are often caused by genetic factors, such as your posture, the way you walk and any foot deformities you may have (including bunions). Your toenails may simply tend to curl out or splay instead of growing straight, making them move outwards or inwards into the skin. Injuring your toe can also lead to the development of an ingrown toenail – stubbing your toe, for instance.
Tight shoes and socks can cause a problem too, as they can push the skin on your toes onto the nail, causing the nail to pierce the skin.
How to treat them
According to the College of Podiatrists, one of the most common causes of ingrown toenails is failing to cut your toenails properly (vii) – always cut the nails straight across, don’t cut them at an angle or try to cut them down at the sides, and avoid cutting them too short. Try cutting your toenails after a bath, as soaking them in water makes them softer and easier to cut. Use proper nail clippers and use a nail file or emery board to keep your toenails looking neat.
If you already have a toenail that’s starting to cause a problem, keeping your feet clean and wearing shoes that give your toes plenty of room to move may stop it from getting any worse. Painkillers may help if you have an ingrown toenail that’s causing you a lot of discomfort. You will, however, need a prescription for antibiotics from your GP or podiatrist if an ingrown toenail causes an infection. But if things don’t improve, you may need to have part or the whole of your toenail surgically removed (partial or total nail avulsion).
Also known as having flat feet, fallen arches means your instep – the middle part of the foot that’s usually raised like an arch – is almost completely flat against the ground. It’s something some people are simply born with, sometimes because one or both of their parents also have fallen arches.
But while they don’t cause any serious problems, fallen arches can cause pain in some people, usually in the feet, ankles, knees, hips or lower back. Having fallen arches can make your feet overpronate (which means they roll inwards too much), and this can lead to injuries.
So if you have fallen arches but your feet feel painful, numb, stiff or weak, or if your shoes wear out very quickly (which can be the case with overpronation), ask your GP for advice.
How to treat them
Wearing well-fitted supportive shoes will help if you have fallen arches. Some people also find wearing orthotics – specially made insoles – in their shoes can provide their feet with extra support.
According to the NHS, losing weight can help if you’re overweight (viii). And it may also be a good idea to see a physiotherapist who can show you exercises that can help stretch the muscles and connective tissues in your lower legs to help prevent your foot rolling over.
A few people may need surgery if none of the above treatments work for them, or if they have flat feet caused by a medical problem that makes the bones in the feet develop abnormally.
Diabetes and foot problems
People who have diabetes are encouraged to take really good care of their feet, as poor blood glucose control can damage the nerves and blood vessels in the feet, which affects the blood supply. This means if they get any injuries on their feet – including small cuts or sores – they may not heal very easily.
Indeed, it’s recommended that people with diabetes have their feet checked by a specialist podiatrist every year.
Besides small cuts, sores and wounds, some of the things you should look out for on a daily basis include the following:
Change in skin colour
Redness or swelling
Loss of feeling
If you spot anything, see your GP, diabetes nurse or podiatrist as soon as you can. The earlier foot problems are spotted and treated the better, as in extreme cases they can lead to foot, toe or leg amputation (according to Diabetes UK, the most recent statistics show there were 26,378 lower limb amputations in England from 20145 to 2017 as a result of poorly controlled diabetes (ix)).
Follow the usual general foot care advice, including washing your feet every day and using a moisturising foot cream to keep them soft. However, dry your feet very carefully, especially between the toes, and don’t put any cream or talc between your toes as it can increase the risk of infection. Never use anything sharp – such as a razor blade – on areas of hard skin; instead, try scrubbing them very gently with a pumice stone.
And always make sure your practitioner is experienced in giving treatments to people with diabetes if you have a pedicure. It’s also good practice to wear shoes at all times – even on the beach – as going barefoot could increase your risk of cutting or injuring your feet.
Natural ways to treat foot problems
To keep your feet happy and healthy you may also want to consider trying one or more of the following nutritional supplements:
If you tend to suffer from cold feet, this herb has a reputation for helping maintain healthy blood circulation, including to the body’s extremities. Widely used in traditional Chinese medicine – as well as for a range of health problems in the West – ginkgo is thought to help relax the small blood vessels, thereby increasing circulation. Indeed, studies suggest it may help reduce the number of attacks in people who have Raynaud’s phenomenon, a condition that limits blood supply to hands, feet and other extreme parts of the body (x).
Supplements that combine ginkgo with other herbs often used by natural health practitioners for their ‘warming’ properties – such as cinnamon and ginger – may also be useful for improving circulation. The evidence for these herbs is anecdotal, and several books on medicinal herbs also claim cinnamon may help stimulate the circulation (xi).
An excellent source of antioxidants called anthocyanins, sour cherries may help prevent gout by reducing levels of uric acid in the blood (xii). This could mean it may be useful for foot health, since gout most commonly affects the joint of the big toe, causing considerable pain and inflammation.
The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in oily fish, are believed to help improve blood flow in the arteries, with one study claiming it may be effective in reducing the symptoms of Raynaud’s phenomenon (xiii)). Many natural health practitioners also recommend omega-3 fatty acids for gout and other painful conditions because they’re thought to affect the body’s natural production of inflammation-reducing prostaglandins.
There is also evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may be useful if you have painful joints in your feet as a result of osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis (xiv). One study suggests omega-3 oils may slow the progression of osteoarthritis as well as help prevent it (xv); while another claims women who ate the equivalent of just one serving of oily fish a week had a 52 percent lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than those who ate less (xvi).
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can still benefit from an omega-3 supplement, thanks to the availability of products that contain the natural triglyceride (TG) form of omega-3, which is sourced from plant organisms called microalgae rather than fish.
For even more articles on a range of common health conditions, feel free to visit our health library.
Available online: https://cop.org.uk/foot-health/keep-on-walking/
Available online: https://cop.org.uk/foot-health/common-foot-problems/bunions/
Online survey conducted on behalf of The College of Podiatry amongst 2,000 UK adults aged 18 plus (1,000 women and 1,000 men) One Poll. 10 and 13 May 2013.
Available online: https://cop.org.uk/foot-health/common-foot-problems/ingrowing-toenail/
Available online: https://www.diabetes.org.uk/about_us/news/lower-limb-amputations
Muir AH, Robb R, McLaren M, et al. The use of ginkgo biloba in Raynaud's disease: a double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Vasc Med. 2002;7:265-267
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Jacob RA, Spinozzi GM, Simon VA, et al. Consumption of cherries lowers plasma urate in healthy women. Acta Otolaryngol. 2003;133:1826-9.
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DiGiacomo RA, Kremer JM, Shah DM. Fish-oil dietary supplementation in patients with Raynaud’s phenomenon: a double-blind, controlled, prospective study. Am J Med. 1989;86:158-164.
Akbar U. et al., Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Rheumatic Diseases: A Critical Review. J Clin Rheumatol. 2017 Sep;23(6):330-339.Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28816722
Knott L, Avery NC, Hollander AP, Tarlton JF. Regulation of osteoarthritis by omega-3 (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids in a naturally occurring model of disease. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2011 Sep;19(9):1150-7.
Di Giuseppe D, Wallin A, et al. Long-term intake of dietary long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and risk of rheumatoid arthritis: a prospective cohort study of women. Ann Rheum Dis 2014 Nov;73(11):1949-53.
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.