If there were an award for the worst-treated body part, feet would win by a landslide. People abuse their tootsies - making them stiff and sore - around the clock. We stuff them into ill-fitting footwear. We don't keep toenails trimmed and filed. And we don't treat - or, in most cases, we're completely unaware of - the foot's structural or muscular imbalances.
Take a look at some conditions that wreak havoc on the feet and 10 ways to pamper and soothe them.
Nothing dampens the spirits of people who love to wear fashionable shoes than bunions. Bunions occur when the foot's big-toe joint moves out of position, creating a prominent bulge that typically creates pain and inflammation, says Michael J. Trepal, a podiatrist and the dean of the New York College of Podiatric Medicine. "As the deformity progresses, the bone increases its tilt, and the foot widens, making shoes more difficult to fit," he says.
"A surgical procedure involving shaving down the bone is one way to treat the condition, which is typically an inherited one," says Trepal. "But in more severe cases, a podiatrist will cut and reposition the bone, thereby realigning the inner border of the foot."
Wherever a foot is subjected to excessive friction or pressure - the metatarsal, heel or underpadding of the toes - you run the risk of getting a callus or a thickening of the skin, says Trepal. Self-treatment usually consists of rubbing a pumice stone lightly on the callused areas and then applying a moisturizing cream to soften them. "Don't use a razor or sharp blade to cut away the skin," he says, adding that this route is especially dangerous for people, such as diabetics, whose foot circulation or sensation is impaired.
Getting to the root of the problem is important. "In many cases, poor foot-function is associated with callus formation, which is why we advise having a podiatrist or other foot-care professional analyze how you're using your feet," he says.
If you've got a yellow or brownish tinge to your nails - without having applied polish - there's a good chance that a fungus is the culprit. "A fungus usually gets under the nail at the tip, and then works its way to the nail bed," says Trepal. Because fungal infections are stubborn and very difficult to get rid of, prescription oral or topical medication is more efficacious than over-the-counter ones, he says.
Trepal advises people whose nails are discolored to see a podiatrist to rule out skin cancer. "Melanomas under or near the nail are often black, but can also be a dark brown or red," he says.
Fungus will often cause a nail to become so thick that the nail's shape becomes domed. "De-bulking the nail - either by clipping or applying a topical medication - is a typical treatment for this condition," says Trepal. "If this condition is caused by a fungus, the patient can also opt for laser treatment, which involves applying laser light to the nail plate, killing the fungus and leaving the nail intact."
People with circulatory impairment should see a podiatrist for nail clipping or other treatments, he says, adding that sometimes other systemic disorders, such as psoriasis, may cause thickening.
After a foot-care professional determines the incorrect ways you're using your feet, you might learn you're a good candidate for an orthotic. "Orthotics are devices which, when customized to address your specific problems, help position the foot more correctly," says Trepal.
Trepal notes that arch supports, which are often sold as one-size-fits-all over-the-counter items, are not the same as customized orthotics which may cost several hundred dollars and are sometimes covered by insurance. "Depending on your need, you might, for example, require a more rigid device for added stability or a more flexible one to accommodate painful pressure points," he says.
Weak leg and foot muscles are common reasons people don't always feel grounded. "When certain muscles are overly contracted, the foot can feel very locked up, and if some are too flexible, the foot can feel very flaccid," says Tara Glazier, a certified Anusara yoga therapist and the owner of Abhaya Yoga in New York City. "Ideally you want to find stability in the foot so that the four corners of the foot touch the ground."
One solution, she says, is doing yoga's traditional and deceptively simple standing poses. One such posture, she says, is Mountain Pose - executed with the feet hip-width apart for a broader base and greater stability - to improve balance.
According to acupuncture theory, several energy channels traverse the feet and ankles. "If you're experiencing pain in a certain area of the foot, an acupuncturist may needle points along one or more of these channels, which may provide pain relief," says James H. Bae, a licensed acupuncturist in private practice in New York City. For example, for bunions, needling points near the big toe may help decrease pain.
Acupuncture treatments typically range from 15 to 45 minutes, says Bae, who treats many patients with foot problems, such as bunions, neuromas, sprains and swelling. Those new to acupuncture needn't worry about the "ouch" factor. "The gentle needle prick upon insertion is generally not painful," he says.
Many people have discovered the circulation-boosting and skin-polishing benefits of dry-brushing the arms, legs and back. But not everyone knows the importance of dry-brushing the feet. "Dry brushing stimulates lymphatic circulation," says Bae. "Even though many lymph nodes are located on and around the torso and in the underarm and neck areas, dry brushing helps create an energy flow that, according to Eastern medicine, begins at the extremities of the hands and feet and travels upward towards the heart."
Bae suggests dry-brushing the body - starting at the toes -using a non-synthetic fiber brush.
People whose tootsies are howling in pain because of excessive standing or shoes that fit poorly are excellent candidates for a foot massage. "Massage oxygenates and increases blood flow to painful areas," says Mileidy Sanchez, a licensed massage therapist at Great Jones Spa who also has a private practice in New York City. "The main complaints I hear from clients are that their metatarsals and arches are painful, and their feet feel like they're being squished and compressed," she says.
Sanchez notes that self-massage can be surprisingly effective and simple. After they soak their feet in Epsom salts, people can just sit in a chair and roll a tennis ball under each foot, periodically putting their weight on the item for additional pressure.