They keep us grounded, get us where we need to go and bear the brunt of exercise, but instead of treating our tootsies with the attention they deserve, we often sacrifice the health of our feet for fashion. Those super-high stilettos may look sexy, but the price of wearing them isn't pretty. Heels aren't the only foot faux pas; flats can be just as damaging. Here, advice from the pros on how to stay one step ahead of the most common foot problems.
If you notice your toenail looks yellow, has white marks on it or contains debris underneath, chances are a fungus is hanging out under your nail. "It's a highly contagious infection that's transmitted from foot to foot, particularly in germy hotbeds like nail salons and gyms," says Carolyn McAloon, DPM, spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association. Usually it's not painful, although wearing a shoe that's pressing on the infected area can irritate it, she says. Fungi thrive in dark, wet, warm areas. To prevent one from taking hold, wear shoes made of breathable fabrics, like leather or canvas, and be sure to take off your socks and shoes to air out your feet after exercising or working all day. A fungus can be treated by trimming and filing any loose areas of the nail, soaking feet in water that contains a few drops of tea tree oil (which is a natural antifungal), using a topical antifungal treatment (if necessary) and bleaching the shower to kill any lingering fungus, says Dr. McAloon.
The biggest culprit for heel pain, or plantar fasciitis, is wearing the wrong shoes for the activity you're doing. For example, if you don ballet flats for taking a daylong sightseeing stroll, your heels won't get the support they need, says Dr. McAloon. "Improper shoes are like dessert: If you wear them in excess, there are likely to be negative consequences," she adds. Be smart about your shoes. If you have to wear heels to a meeting, bring a pair of sneakers for the commute. Stretching and icing your heels can help relieve pain. From a seated position, try flexing your feet by pulling your toes toward your nose. Rolling your feet over a frozen water bottle can also alleviate discomfort.
Have you ever taken off your heels after dancing the night away and been overcome with what can only be described as an inferno under your feet? If so, you can thank your shoes. "When you squeeze your toes into narrow high heels, you put pressure on the balls and sides of the feet, so the nerves between your toes get compressed, causing a burning, tingling or numbness between the toes and in the ball of the foot," says Amber M. Shane, DPM, FACFAS, a reconstructive foot and ankle surgeon in Orlando, Florida. Shoes need to accommodate the foot so there's room for toes to wiggle. The ideal heel height is less than two inches. However, since most women won't go that low, a platform heel is a good compromise. This stacked heel makes full contact with the ground, which distributes pressure more evenly, says Dr. Shane.
If you've seen someone with a bump on the side of her big toe, it's not an extra knuckle-it's a bunion. These unsightly bulges appear thanks to an inherited foot type, which deforms the bones and ligaments, says Dr. McAloon. Wearing shoes that crowd the toes or are too tight can increase the likelihood of getting them and make existing bunions worse. To prevent a bunion from appearing in the first place, stick to shoes with a roomy toe area. If you do have a bunion, a gel pad can help minimize contact with the shoe, Dr. McAloon says. If your bunion becomes inflamed and painful, apply ice packs several times a day to reduce swelling. The only way to actually get rid of a bunion is through surgery, so if pain interferes with daily activity, talk to your doctor, recommends Dr. McAloon.
Unlike other parts of the body, toes just aren't that flexible, so when they end up in a position they aren't used to, the muscle becomes strained and cramps. Anything from new shoes, exercising or dehydration can cause a toe cramp. To ward them off, break in new shoes before extended wear, go easy on your feet if you're partaking in a new exercise class and make sure you're drinking enough water, says Dr. Shane. At the onset of a cramp, stop what you're doing, take off the shoe and stretch the toes back and forth. If you continue to move through the cramp, you can end up tearing the muscle, she says.
Corns or Calluses
When the skin on your feet continuously rubs against your shoes or against itself, the result can be a corn or callus. Both consist of hard, dead, thick skin. Corns usually appear on or between the toes, while calluses form on the soles of the feet or the side of the big toe, explains Dr. McAloon. Use a pumice stone to buff rough skin, or try a urea cream, which can slough it away. To prevent both conditions, your first line of defense is to make sure your shoes fit properly. Feet can change and swell due to pregnancy and other health conditions, so you should get them measured every few years by a shoe store employee. The best time to get your feet measured is in the late afternoon and, since most feet aren't the same size, always buy the larger foot's size. It's also a good idea to opt for closed-toe shoes, since feet move around more in sandals. To reduce the friction caused by ill-fitting shoes, place moleskin or padding on the affected areas. If pain occurs, particularly from a corn, see your doctor, who can remove it.
You may not be the heel-wearing type, but even some flats can be, well, too flat. When your feet are close to the ground and your heel isn't supported properly, you can pull the tendon that attaches the heel to the foot, says Dr. McAloon. Flip-flops, flats or any shoe that bends, folds or twists at the center shouldn't be worn for prolonged periods of time, she says. The painful condition will improve with rest, and ice can help ease pain and inflammation.
Wearing a rigid shoe can cause your Achilles tendon to rub against the fabric, which can form a bump. Basically it's calcification that appears where the tendon attaches to the heel bone, says Dr. Shane. It can result from exercise, wearing new shoes or weight gain-anything that puts stress on the area. At the onset of pain, stretch the backs of your feet. Anti-inflammatory meds, like ibuprofen, can reduce inflammation and swelling, Dr. Shane says.
"Contrary to popular belief, it's not the nail that's growing into the skin, but the skin that's growing up over the nail," says Dr. Shane. Ingrowns happen when a nail is cut too short or its corners are rounded with a file, or when there's too much pressure from shoes. Sports in which you frequently start and stop, like tennis or basketball, can jam toes and cause ingrowns. Soak your foot in an Epsom salt bath to help relax the tissue, decrease inflammation and separate the nail from the skin a bit, Dr. Shane recommends. If it gets infected, see your doctor, who can remove just the part of the skin that's ingrown. To prevent them, trim toenails straight across and leave them slightly longer than the end of the toe.
Imagine that your toe looks more like a claw than a human appendage; hammertoe is a condition in which one or both toe joints are bent and the toe points toward the floor. "The muscles that control your toes get out of balance and force the toe to bend into an odd position at one or more joints," says Dr. McAloon. The most common cause is too-tight shoes, though some people can be more prone to it because of an inherited foot type. It's not necessary to correct a hammertoe (with surgery) unless it causes you pain or interferes with daily activities, Dr. McAloon says. There are things you can do at home to help, such as avoiding pressure on the toes, wearing shoes with a roomy toe box and applying a topical pain-relieving gel to ease aches.