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Common Foot Problems: Symptoms and Treatment
by Susan Louisa Montauk, M.D.

healthy feet

Surveys suggest that more than half of us have foot problems at some point during our lives—so many that an entire profession has developed around medical foot care: podiatry. If you end up as one of the unfortunate not-so-few, here are some tips that might help.


ATHLETE'S FOOT
Athlete’s foot, caused by a fungus that loves dark, warm, damp skin, results in itching, scaling sores and, often, painful cracks in the folds under the toes.

Treatment: Simply use over-the-counter fungus cream.


CALLUSES AND CORNS
These are painful bumps on the soles (usually calluses) and around the toes near joints (usually corns).

Treatment: Removing pressure helps them heal, so good shoes (click here for tips) and shoe pads, which you can buy from a pharmacy, help. You can use a pumice stone to polish them down.


INGROWN TOENAILS
Trimming nails too short and rounded in the corners can cause ingrown toenails. (The correct trimming method is straight across.) Shoes also contribute: Pointy and tight just ain’t right! (Click here for shoe-buying tips.)

Treatment: Soaking the affected toe in warm water, then placing antibiotic ointment and dry cotton under the ingrown nail corner, may fix mildly red ingrown toenails. Do this twice a day for 15 minutes. See your health-care provider if you have severe pain, have no relief within 10 days, or still have pain after 14 days.


FOOT ODOR
When sweat mixes with a bacteria normally found on your feet, it produces a smelly acid. This is one main cause of foot odor.

Treatment: Cotton socks and shoes that breathe (leather or canvas, not plastic) can keep the sweat down. In 2006, researchers in one study found that citral, citronellal or geraniol oil, which you can buy at aromatherapy stores, may inhibit the problematic acid.


OTHER FOOT PROBLEMS

A few other foot problems get their own chart below. They’re all still solvable, but they might take a bit of perseverance.

For all of the below problems, if you don't have a medical reason to do otherwise, consider taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications for pain for up to a month, as needed. These include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and ketoprofen. If you need to take them every day for longer than a month, call your health-care provider.

PROBLEM DESCRIPTION, SIGNS, SYMPTOMS CAUSE TREATMENT
BUNIONS Abnormal bone-placement in the big toe. The bunion sticks out, causing pain. Mainly shoes (pointy, tight, high-heeled). Can be hereditary. If you catch things early enough, wearing shoes that conform to the shape of your foot (and thus don’t cause pressure areas) and adding pads may solve the pain. However, most of the bunion shape will remain. With surgery, the bunion rarely comes back. See your health-care provider if you have no relief within 30 days, still have pain after 60 days or can’t bend your big toe.
HAMMERTOES AND MALLET TOES Hammertoe: toe joint nearest foot stays bent. Mallet toe: toe joint nearest nail stays bent. Commonly, shoes (pointy, tight, high-heeled). Wear a better shoe. (Get tips here.) Shoe inserts or pads may also help, as long as the toe is still flexible. Picking up marbles with your toes may encourage flexibility. See your health-care provider if you have no relief within 30 days, still have pain after 60 days, or can’t bend your toe.
MORTON’S NEUROMA Buildup of extra tissue from a pinched nerve. Usually causes pain between the third and fourth toes. Mainly shoes (pointy, tight, high-heeled). Wear wider, flat shoes. Anti-inflammatory medications may speed up healing and help with pain. See your health-care provider if you have no relief within 30 days.
PLANTAR FASCIITIS Inflamed plantar fascia, the band of fiber on the bottom of your foot that runs from your toes to your heel, forming the arch. Causes sharp heel pain when you walk. Activity overload (too much too fast), arch problems (high or low) or a poor walking pattern (such as from a painful hip).
Stretch the fascia regularly. (See instructions here.) Use heel inserts, available in most pharmacies. Heavy shoes? Just say no! See your health-care provider if you have no relief within 30 days or still have pain after 60 days.
PLANTAR WARTS Painful bumps on the soles. Similar to warts on other body parts, except these grow inward because of weight when you stand. Mildly contagious virus. Can spread to other places on your own foot through touching or scratching. Don’t share if bare! Warts often go away on their own but can also keep getting bigger and deeper. Over-the-counter salicylic acid (Curad Mediplast, Dr. Scholl’s Clear Away Plantar, others) may do the trick if you apply it multiple times. Shower shoes can help prevent in communal areas. See your health-care provider if you have no relief within 30 days or the wart is still present after 90 days.
TOENAIL FUNGUS Fungus that causes whitened or yellowed nails. Heredity, sweaty feet. Toenail fungus is very hard to get rid of. I have had several patients with a fungus on less than half of a toenail who used Vicks VapoRub every night for several months, with a bandage around the toe, with great results. This remedy hasn’t been studied though. Oral prescription medicines take just as long.

 

Just remember: be kind to your feet! Unlike shoes, you can’t just go out and buy another pair—at least not yet.


SUSAN LOUISA MONTAUK, M.D., is a board-certified family doctor in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Last updated and/or approved: August 2010.
Original article appeared in spring 2007 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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Comments (3)add comment
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I need a little help.......
written by Sharon , January 18, 2013

My pinky toenail fell off for no apparent reason. What could cause this?
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WEIGHT AND
written by PHATHU , September 05, 2012

I AM 32 YRS OLD, HEIGHT 1.66M, WEIGHT 81KG. DOES WEIGHT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH PAINFUL AND SMELLY FEET? THERE IS A HARD SKIN UNDERNEATH MY FEET UP TO THE BACK OF THE TOES AND THE AREA SIMILAR TO A HAND PALM, GETS VERY PAINFUL OVERTIME DURING THE DAY.
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Vicks? WWow... thank you
written by Judy Rodman , August 25, 2010

I have one "white" toenail... white polish makes it unoticable in summer; but I think I'll try the Vicks this winter when not wearing open toe shoes. Has anyone ever tried soaking a nail in Hydrogen Peroxide?
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