Are My Feet Killing Me?

“My feet are killing me!” is a common phrase we hear. But could it be true? Maybe not quite, but problems with the feet can indicate a more serious condition in another part of the body that may need medical attention.
[healthy feet]
Healthy feet, healthy body.

Reflexologists and proponents of foot massage around the world have long claimed that manipulating points of the feet can improve the health of internal organs. There is little evidence to prove this, but it is clear that aspects of a person’s general health sometimes find expression in the feet.

In this article, we will look at 10 things that the feet can reveal about the condition of the rest of the body.

The feet bear the weight of the whole body when we stand or walk.

The feet contain a quarter of the body’s bones. Each foot has 33 joints, 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments; and countless nerves and blood vessels that link all the way to the heart, spine, and brain.

It is hardly surprising, then, that when the feet are out of line, it affects the whole body. Keeping the feet in good condition is of vital importance to our well-being.

1. Foot cramping and spasms

Muscle spasms, commonly known as Charley horses, can be uncomfortable, but they can also be signs of deficiencies in the body.

The spasms can be caused by dehydration. Insufficient hydration can mean that the muscles are not getting enough oxygen and that there is a lack or imbalance of electrolytes or nutrients, especially sodium, calcium, potassium, or magnesium. This could be a side effect of diuretic medication, which aims to reduce excess fluid in the body.

If the spasms happen while walking, it could indicate a circulatory problem.

Spasms can also result from overexertion, or not stretch enough when exercising. Finally, the type of shoes might contribute, for example, changing from flat shoes to high heels.

2. An enlarged big toe

Gout can cause the toe to be red, hot, swollen and extremely painful. Gout is the most common type of inflammatory arthritis among men.

Fast facts about feet

  • There are around 250,000 sweat glands in a pair of feet, producing around 1/2 pint of sweat daily
  • When a person runs, their feet bear three to four times their body weight
  • In the U.S., around 19 percent of the population have 1.4-foot problems each year.

It is a type of inflammatory arthritis that happens when too much uric acid, or monosodium urate, builds up in the tissues and fluids of the body.

As uric acid crystals tend to collect in the coolest part of the body, gout normally manifests in the big toe, and this is where the symptoms tend to appear first.

People who are overweight or obese, and those with poor circulation, are more prone.

Alcohol, a meat-rich diet, and some medications can add to the risk.

Anti-inflammatory medications can help, but recurrent gout can lead to a degenerative kind of arthritis called gouty arthritis.

Gout also increases the risk of kidney stones.

3. Cold feet, warm heart?

Not quite. Cold feet can indicate a range of problems, including poor circulation, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and anemia.

Feet that change color, from red to white to blue, may be a sign of Raynaud’s disease, in which blood vessels narrow when the nerves overreact to the cold.

For people with primary Raynaud’s, avoiding cold and tobacco normally helps; but 20 percent of cases stem from an underlying disease, especially of the connective tissues. This can be more serious.

4. Swollen feet

Swollen feet can indicate a wide range of problems, some of which can be life-threatening.

They range from poor circulation and related heart failure, kidney or liver failure, to deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or a blood clot, lymphatic buildup and cellulitis, among others.

If there is redness, warmth, and inflammation, there could be an infection.

Bruising and swelling suggests a sprain or fracture.

Painless swelling in the feet happens when fluid builds up in the body, and gravity means that it collects in the feet.

Home treatment includes raising the feet when sitting down, exercising the legs, reducing salt intake, and avoiding tight clothes. Losing weight may help some people.

5. Spoon-shaped toenails

Concave toenails, or koilonychia, is not just unsightly, but it can also be a sign of systemic disease.

It is mainly associated with nutritional deficiencies, and especially iron-deficiency anemia. Anemia is linked to malnutrition, internal bleeding, malignancy, and celiac disease.
Discolored toenails and wounds that do not heal suggest a systemic disorder that needs medical attention.

Spoon-shaped toenails can also be a sign of a genetic disorder, circulatory problems, autoimmune diseases, and musculoskeletal conditions.

6. Colored toenails

Yellow toenails are common among women who always wear nail polish, but they can be a sign of something more serious.

Conditions linked to yellowing toenails include tuberculosis (TB), jaundice due to liver problems, inflammation of the thyroid gland, and even sinusitis.

They can also indicate bronchiectasis, a lung condition that can lead to breathing problems.

A variety of nail colors and textures can reflect an even wider variety of systemic problems. If there is discoloration or deformity of the nails, and this is not linked to the use of cosmetics, it might be a good idea to seek medical advice.

7. ‘Pins and needles’

Numbness or tingling in the feet can be a sign of circulatory problems or damage to the peripheral nervous system, possibly a trapped nerve or one of a range of diseases.

In people with diabetes, long exposure to high blood glucose can cause nerve damage, and this can lead to tingling in the feet. According to the National MS Society, numbness or “pins and needles” in the extremities is often one of the first signs of multiple sclerosis (MS). Rarely, numbness or tingling can be a sign of a tumor or a stroke.

8. Aching toe joints

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that affects the bones in the joints. The first signs are usually in the hands and feet, and the ankles and feet of 90 percent of people with the condition will be affected.

In rheumatoid arthritis, the lining of the joints, or synovium, becomes swollen and inflamed. The joint and supporting ligaments and tissues are damaged, leading to decreased mobility.

There may be a deformity, such as claw toe or hammer toe. As the bones soften, stress

fractures and bone collapse may result.

Rest, ice, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can help to relieve symptoms and reduce pain and inflammation.

Shoe inserts can help to minimize pressure and correct the shape of the foot, and some people wear a brace.

Steroid injections can reduce inflammation in the early stages, but surgery may be necessary eventually.

9. Foot drop

If a person has foot drop, or drop foot, they cannot lift the front part of the foot. This is a sign of an underlying muscular, neurological, or anatomical problem.

There may be nerve or muscle damage as far up as the neck or shoulder. It may cause the foot to drag when walking, or the individual may develop an unusual gait, lifting their thigh to enable the foot to clear the floor.

Foot drop can result from a nerve injury in the leg or damage during a hip operation. Sometimes it is related to a neurological disease such as polio, or a brain or spinal cord disorder. A person with multiple sclerosis or stroke may have foot drop.

Treatment and its outcomes depend on the underlying cause. A brace or splint may help to maintain a normal foot position, physical therapy can help with gait, and nerve stimulation sometimes helps to lift the foot.

Surgery may be offered to treat the nerves, to fuse the bones, or to correct the position of tendons.

10. Persistent sores

A common symptom of diabetes is neuropathy or damage to the nerves. This means that patients are unable to feel or notice injuries, for example, having a stone in the foot or a blister.

If the injuries get worse and become infected, they can lead to ulcers and gangrene, and the need for amputation. Nerve damage can also cause the feet and toes to change shape.

Other signs of diabetes that appear in the feet include dry, cracked, and peeling skin, calluses, and poor circulation.

So, next time you have a minor problem with your feet, take note. Your feet may not be killing you, but they could be alerting you to a more serious problem.

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How Can Diabetes Affect the Feet?

People with diabetes are prone to foot problems caused by prolonged periods of high blood sugar. There are two main foot problems, each of which can have serious complications.

Diabetes is a disease where the body cannot produce insulin or cannot use it effectively. Insulin is the hormone that is responsible for helping the cells take in sugar to use for energy. When this does not happen properly, the levels of sugar in the blood can become too high.

Prolonged periods of high sugar levels in the blood can wreak havoc on many areas of the body, including the feet.

Diabetic foot problems

Doctor checking a patients feet
Over time, diabetes may cause neuropathy in the feet, which may result in a loss of feeling.

The two main foot problems that affect people with diabetes are:

Diabetic neuropathy

Over time, diabetes can cause nerve damage that makes it hard for people with diabetes to feel sensation in their extremities.

The condition also makes it difficult for a person to feel an irritation on their foot or notice when their shoes are rubbing. This lack of sensation and awareness leads to an increase in the risk of cuts, sores, and blisters developing.

Peripheral vascular disease

Diabetes leads to changes in the blood vessels, including arteries. In peripheral vascular disease, fatty deposits block these vessels beyond the brain and heart. It tends to affect the blood vessels leading to and from the extremities, reducing blood flow to the hands and feet.

Reduced blood flow can lead to pain, infection, and slow healing wounds. Severe infections may lead to amputation.

Symptoms

Symptoms may vary from person to person and may depend on what issues a person is experiencing at the time. Symptoms of diabetic foot problems can include the following:

  • loss of feeling
  • numbness or tingling sensation
  • blisters or other wounds without painful
  • skin discoloration
  • skin temperature changes
  • red streaks
  • wounds with or without drainage
  • painful tingling
  • staining on socks
  • deformed foot appearance

If an infection is present in a foot or foot ulcer, a person may also experience some of the following:

  • fever
  • chills
  • uncontrollable blood sugar
  • shaking
  • shock
  • redness

Anyone who experiences any of the symptoms of an infection should seek emergency treatment.

Complications

Diabetic neuropathy and peripheral vascular disease are serious conditions that must be monitored closely. Both cause complications that can have serious negative effects. These complications may include:

  • foot ulcers, or wounds, that do not heal
  • infections, including skin infections, bone infections, and abscesses
  • gangrene, when an infection causes tissue death
  • foot deformity
  • Charcot’s Foot (fractures or dislocations in the foot that may cause deformities)

When to see a doctor

Swollen left foot
Immediate medical attention should be sought if there are changes to the feet such as skin color, persistent sores, tingling, and swelling of the foot or ankle.

People who have diabetes should see a doctor regularly as part of their care. However, they should seek immediate medical attention if they notice any of the following:

  • changes in foot skin color
  • swelling in the foot or ankle
  • temperature changes in the feet
  • persistent sores on the feet
  • pain or tingling in the feet or ankles
  • ingrown toenails
  • athlete’s foot or other foot fungal infections
  • dry and cracked skin on the heels
  • signs of infection

Treatment

Treatment for diabetic foot problems varies according to the severity of the condition. A range of surgical and nonsurgical options is available.

Nonsurgical treatment

Nonsurgical options are normally the first method of treatment for diabetic foot problems. Some of these include:

  • keeping wounds clean and dressed
  • immobilization devices, such as a cast boot or total contact cast
  • close observation of gangrene toes until self-amputation occurs, when the toes fall off due to lack of blood flow

Surgical treatment

When nonsurgical treatment fails to heal diabetic foot problems, surgery may be considered. Surgical treatment options include:

  • removal of decaying or dead tissue
  • amputation, varying from toe or part of the foot to amputation of the leg below the knee, or above the knee in some cases
  • surgical stabilization of Charcot’s Foot
  • arterial bypass for peripheral vascular disease, or endovascular surgery with placement of stents

Diabetic foot care

lady having a bath
Examining the feet daily and keeping them clean is recommended to prevent diabetic foot problems.

Preventing diabetic foot problems is essential for people who have diabetes. Keeping feet healthy is important, and a person should be vigilant about foot hygiene. They can take the following steps:

  • Check feet each day: Examine the feet daily, or ask someone to check for any changes or injuries.
  • Wash feet daily: Keeping feet clean helps to prevent infections.
  • Wear supportive shoes and socks: It is important to keep feet protected in socks and shoes at all times. A podiatrist may recommend shoes to help prevent deformities. Socks should not be too tight so as to restrict blood flow.
  • Promote blood flow to the feet: Putting feet up when sitting, wiggling toes periodically, and getting enough exercise helps promote healthy blood flow to the feet.
  • Trim nails carefully: Trim toenails straight across and keep them short. Rounded nails can cause ingrown toenails, which can lead to infection.
  • Care for corns and bunions: Treat corns and bunions carefully. Corns should never be shaved as this increases the risk of infection.
  • Protect feet from extreme temperatures: Exposure to hot and cold can damage diabetic feet.
  • Get feet checked regularly: Regular examinations by a doctor are key to preventing infections, amputations, and serious deformities.
  • Control blood sugar: Uncontrolled blood sugar raises the likelihood of podiatric complications from diabetes,
  • Avoid smoking: Smoking adversely affects the blood flow to the tissues.

Preventing diabetic foot problems

Diabetes can cause serious foot problems that can result in loss of the feet or limbs, deformity, and infections. However, many of these problems can be prevented or minimized.

While controlling blood sugar by following the recommended treatment plans is the best way to prevent these serious problems, self-care and regular check-ups with a doctor can prevent diabetic foot problems as well.