Pain in the foot can involve any part of the foot. Abnormalities of the skin, nerves, bones, blood vessels, and soft tissues of the foot can result in foot pain. Evaluating the cause of foot pain can require an understanding of the anatomy and physiology of not only the foot, but also the ankle, lower extremity, and lower spine.
Because we expose our feet to potential injury in our daily lives by walking, we have all experienced pains in the feet at one time or another. There are many common causes of foot pains, such as blisters and corns. There are also less common causes of foot pain, such as sciatica and osteomyelitis. Foot pain may cause unsteady gait and/or limping. Treatments for foot pain depend on the particular cause.
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Causes of Foot Pain
Ankle Pain (Tendinitis)
Ankle pain is commonly due to a sprain or tendinitis. The severity of ankle sprains ranges from mild (which can resolve within 24 hours) to severe (which can require surgical repair). Tendinitis of the ankle can be caused by trauma or inflammation.
Arthritis (Joint Inflammation)
Arthritis is inflammation of one or more joints. When joints are inflamed they can develop stiffness, warmth, swelling, redness and pain. There are over 100 types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, lupus, gout, and pseudogout.
Athlete's foot (tinea pedis) is a skin infection caused by the ringworm fungus. Symptoms include itching, burning, cracking, peeling, and bleeding feet. Treatment involves keeping the feet dry and clean, wearing shoes that can breathe, and using medicated powders to keep your feet dry.
Bone spurs are pointy outgrowths of bone that develop in areas of inflammation or injury. They commonly occur on the heel and spine and may be the result of reactive arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, or diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis. Symptoms include pain, numbness, and tenderness. Treatment focuses on decreasing inflammation and avoiding re-injury.
A broken bone is a fracture. There are different types of fractures, such as: compressed, open, stress, greenstick, spiral, vertebral compression, compound, and comminuted. Symptoms of a broken bone include pain at the site of injury, swelling, and bruising around the area of injury. Treatment of a fracture depends on the type and location of the injury.
A bruise, or contusion, is caused when blood vessels are damaged or broken as the result of a blow to the skin. The raised area of a bump or bruise results from blood leaking from these injured blood vessels into the tissues as well as from the body's response to the injury. Treatments include applying an ice pack and pressure to the area by hand.
Bug Bites and Stings
Bug bites and stings have been known to transmit insect-borne illnesses such as West Nile virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Lyme disease. Though most reactions to insect bites and stings are mild, some reactions may be life-threatening. Preventing bug bites and stings with insect repellant, wearing the proper protective attire, and not wearing heavily scented perfumes when in grassy, wooded, and brushy areas is key.
The common bunion, an enlargement of the inner portion of the joint at the base of the big toe, primarily affects women. The signs and symptoms of bunions include inflammation, redness, tenderness, and pain of the first metatarsophalangeal joint. The little toe may also develop a bunion (tailor's bunion). Rest, walking shoes, stretching, cold packs, and anti-inflammatory medications may alleviate pain. Surgery is also a treatment option.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition in which irritation of the wrist's median nerve causes tingling and numbness of the thumb, index, and the middle fingers. Treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome depends on the severity of the symptoms and the nature of any disease that might be causing the symptoms.
Corns and calluses are sometimes painful areas of thickened skin that appear between the toes and fingers or on the soles of the feet. Abnormal foot anatomy, ill-fitting footwear, and unusual gait can put increased pressure in specific areas, causing corns and calluses. Treatment may involve using over-the-counter salicylic-acid products, visiting a podiatrist to be fitted with an orthotic device, or surgical removal.
Flatfoot (Pes Planus)
Flatfoot is a disorder in which the foot's entire sole is touching the ground while standing. Symptoms and signs of flatfoot include heel, ankle, knee, hip, and lower back pain and shin splints. Treatment depends upon the type of flatfoot, the symptoms, and the stage of the disorder.
Buildup of uric acid crystals in a joint causes gouty arthritis. Symptoms and signs include joint pain, swelling, heat, and redness, typically of a single joint. Gout may be treated with diet and lifestyle changes, as well as medication.
Heel Pain: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention
Heel pain is most often caused by plantar fasciitis. Plantar fasciitis or heel spur syndrome is the tissue swelling over the sole of the foot. The other causes of heel pain include vitamin deficiency, medical problems, and physical activity.
Heel spurs -- pointed, bony outgrowths of the heel -- cause localized soft-tissue inflammation and can be located at the back of the heel or under the heel, or beneath the sole of the foot. Heel spurs are treated with ice application and anti-inflammatory medications. Orthotics may also provide some relief.
Ingrown Toenail (Onychocryptosis)
Ingrown toenails are caused by the growth of the toenail into the surrounding nail fold. Symptoms and signs include toe pain, swelling, redness, and yellow drainage. Treatment at home involves soaking the affected foot in diluted white vinegar or Epsom salts, elevating the foot, and trimming the nails straight across. Surgery is also an option for severe cases. Prevent ingrown toenails by wearing shoes with a wider toe box and avoiding repeated injury to the toenails. Avoid curving or cutting the nails short at the edges.
A Morton's neuroma is an inflamed nerve between the bones at the ball of the foot. Symptoms include a burning, sharp pain on the bottom of the foot. Treatment involves resting the foot, wearing better-fitting shoes, ice packs, and cortisone injection.
Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis caused by inflammation, breakdown, and eventual loss of cartilage in the joints. Also known as degenerative arthritis, osteoarthritis can be caused by aging, heredity, and injury from trauma or disease.
Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone. Potential causes include injections around the bone, fractures that puncture the skin, recent surgeries, and bacterial infections that travel from other areas of the body, spreading through the blood to the bone. Symptoms include pain, fever, chills, stiffness, and nausea. Treatment involves antibiotics and pain medications. Surgery is sometimes necessary.
Peripheral neuropathy is a problem with the functioning of the nerves outside of the spinal cord. Symptoms may include numbness, weakness, burning pain (especially at night), and loss of reflexes. Possible causes may include carpel tunnel syndrome, shingles, vitamin or nutritional deficiencies, and illnesses like diabetes, syphilis, AIDS, and kidney failure. Peripheral neuropathy is diagnosed with exams and tests. Treatment for the condition depends on the cause. Usually, the prognosis for peripheral neuropathy is good if the cause can be successfully treated or prevented.
Peripheral Vascular Disease
Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) refers to diseases of the blood vessels (arteries and veins) located outside the heart and brain. While there are many causes of peripheral vascular disease, doctors commonly use the term peripheral vascular disease to refer to peripheral artery disease (peripheral arterial disease, PAD), a condition that develops when the arteries that supply blood to the internal organs, arms, and legs become completely or partially blocked as a result of atherosclerosis. Peripheral artery disease symptoms include intermittent leg pain while walking, leg pain at rest, numbness in the legs or feet, and poor wound healing in the legs or feet. Treatment for peripheral artery disease include lifestyle measures, medication, angioplasty, and surgery.
Plantar fasciitis is inflammation of the ligament underneath the sole of the foot. Symptoms of plantar fasciitis include heel pain, foot pain, tenderness, stiffness, and difficulty walking on hard surfaces. Plantar fasciitis treatment involves icing the area, taking anti-inflammatory medications, using orthotics, and physical therapy.
Psoriatic arthritis is a disease that causes skin and joint inflammation. Symptoms and signs include painful, stiff, and swollen joints, tendinitis, and organ inflammation. Treatment involves anti-inflammatory medications and exercise.
Raynaud's phenomenon is characterized by a pale-blue-red sequence of color changes of the digits, most commonly after exposure to cold. Occurring as a result of spasm of blood vessels, the cause is unknown. Symptoms of Raynaud's phenomenon depend on the severity, frequency, and duration of the blood vessel spasm. Treatments include protection of the digits, medications, and avoiding emotional stresses, smoking, cold temperature, and tools that vibrate the hands.
Sciatica pain, caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve, typically radiates from the low back to behind the thigh to below the knee. Disc herniation is usually the cause of sciatica. Medication to alleviate pain, physical therapy, and bed rest are treatments for sciatica.
Snake Bite (Snake Bite)
There are venomous (poisonous) and nonvenomous (nonpoisonous) snakes. A venomous snake bite penetrates the skin and injects, secretes, or spits a toxin into the penetrated wound. Symptoms of a venomous snake bite include: redness at the site of the bite, swelling at the site of the bite, severe pain at the site of the bite, nausea and vomiting labored breathing disturbed vision increased sweating and salivation, and numbness or tingling in the face or arms and legs. Treatment of a venomous snake is a medical emergency, and the person that has been bitten needs to be taken to an emergency department or other emergent care facility as soon as possible.
Sprains and Strains
An injury to a ligament is called a sprain, and an injury to muscle or tendon is called a strain. Sprains and strains may be caused by repetitive movements or a single stressful incident. Symptoms and signs include pain and swelling. Though treatment depends upon the extent and location of the injury, rest, ice, compression, and elevation are key elements of treatment.
Turf toe is a sprain to the ligaments around the big toe joint. Symptoms and signs include pain, swelling, a popping sound, and limited range of motion. Treatment may involve taking ibuprofen, immobilizing with tape, cast, or a walking boot.
Vasculitis (arteritis, angiitis) is a general term for a group of uncommon diseases which feature inflammation of the blood vessels. Each form of vasculitis has its own characteristic pattern of symptoms. The diagnosis of vasculitis is definitively established after a biopsy of involved tissue demonstrates the pattern of blood vessel inflammation. Treatment is directed toward decreasing the inflammation of the arteries and improving the function of affected organs.
Warts (Common Warts)
Common warts are skin growths causes by the human papillomavirus. There are many types of warts, including plantar warts, common hand warts, warts under the nails, mosaic wars, and flat warts. Over-the-counter treatments typically involve the use of salicylic acid products.
Examples of Medications for Foot Pain
- acetaminophen (Tylenol, Tylenol Arthritis Pain, Tylenol Ext, Little Fevers Children's Fever/Pain)
- aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid, Bayer, Ecotrin, and others)
- celecoxib (Celebrex)
- efinaconazole (Jublia)
- etodolac, Lodine (Discontinued)
- ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin)
- Ketorolac vs. diclofenac
- Ketorolac vs. ibuprofen (Advil)
- Ketorolac vs. naproxen (Aleve)
- naproxen (Aleve, Anaprox, Naprelan, Naprosyn)
- OTC Pain Relievers and Fever Reducers
- Ultram (tramadol) Side Effects, Warnings, and Interactions
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