Feet First

Feet First

In many cultures, feet have an exalted status. Catholic worshipers kiss the pontiff's toe, and yogis bow in salutation to their gurus' feet, then lavish them with flowers to show both humility and reverence. But in much of American culture, feet are adored only fleetingly—usually after a pedicure, when they look perfect—and their mechanical genius is largely taken for granted until problems set in. The foot is a complicated, elegant structure, with 28 bones and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. As a dynamic foundation, feet constantly adjust to whatever you're doing, whether you're taking a leisurely stroll or running a 5K race.

Feet also change over time. They typically become wider and longer with age, and the natural padding under the heel and ball thins. And after years of standing and walking (the average person walks nearly 50,000 miles by age 50), arches tend to flatten, and ankles and feet can get stiff. To compound matters, most Americans routinely wear ill-fitting shoes. In fact, women are three times more likely than men to wear shoes that hurt their feet, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA). "Many people think foot pain is normal," says Kendrick A. Whitney, D.P.M., an assistant professor at the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine in Philadelphia. With so many people ignoring—or even expecting—foot discomfort, it's hardly surprising that about 43 million Americans suffer from foot problems.

While there are basic skeletal issues, like a misalignment of bones, that can lead to foot problems, simple daily care and wearing the right shoes can prevent the vast majority of nagging issues. If pain does arise, visit a podiatrist as soon as possible. Ignoring it could affect your posture, which can restrict your rib cage and reduce the flow of oxygen throughout your body. Poor posture can also lead to backache, sore knees, tight shoulders, or even an aching jaw as your body tries to alleviate—and compensate for—any injuries. If necessary, your doctor may refer you to a pedorthist, who can fit you with custom orthotic shoes or inserts to help position your feet correctly. To keep your feet in top form, follow our guide to common conditions and the best ways to deal with them.

Morton's Neuroma (Plantar Neuroma)

What it is: A tissue growth that develops when the third and fourth toe bones rub together and pinch the nerve between them, resulting in a sharp pain in the ball of the foot and stinging, burning, or numbness in the toes.

Causes: High-impact, repetitive activities; tight shoes; arthritis; nerve or muscle problems.

How to deal:

  • Wear wide-toed shoes with less than two-inch heels and good arch support.
  • Take off your shoes and massage the ball of your foot whenever possible to reduce pain; wear metatarsal pads or sleeves (available at local drugstores), which fit under the ball of your foot to cushion the area; or get a local injection of anesthetic and corticosteroid.
  • Remove the neuroma and the affected nerve surgically. This is considered a last resort since over 80 percent of neuromas are cured non-surgically and the procedure can cause permanent numbness in the affected toes.