Common Causes of Foot Pain
by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP
This article takes 6 minutes to read
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Foot pain affects nearly one in five people throughout their lifetime. It can be associated with increased age, female gender, obesity, and pain in other body regions, and has a significant negative impact on health-related quality of life. Painful feet can lead to an overall decrease in general activity, which can create joint stiffness, muscle weakness, and increased risk of injuries.
Research shows foot pain is very prevalent both acute and chronic in 9% of the adult population but could be as high as 30% overall. And despite popular belief, more often than not, foot pain is not from high heels.
Foot pain can last from a couple of hours to days and even longer depending on the tissue and joint structures involved in the pain or injury. Pain in the feet can have long-term repercussions if not addressed with proper care and attention.
Here are 6 Foot Pains to keep on your radar.
Pain in the heel or arch of the foot is one of the most common foot pains that people suffer from and also try to ignore. Plantarfascitis can affect the heel, arch, or both. When the arch of the foot is not supported, whether through joint position or poor shoe support, the bones that typically support the arch can ‘fall’ and increase pressure on the underlying structures, like the ligaments and tendons. This added stress puts abnormal strain on the tissues which are not intended to support a person’s body weight. This increased stress can cause inflammation, pain, and progressive discomfort with walking, standing, and any weight-bearing activity.
Plantarfascitis is usually the most painful when taking the first couple steps out of bed in the morning or after sitting for a long period of time. Most describe it as a sharp pain through the arch or the base of the heel.
2. Stress Fractures
Older adults or those with known osteoporosis have an increased risk of stress fractures within the small bones of the foot. Runners are also susceptible to this type of injury, especially when training for longer runs or not giving the feet enough rest between runs.
Stress fractures can start out as a subtle pain, oftentimes like a deep ache that won’t go away, that progresses to sharp pains, swelling, and even bruising. Weight shifting from the heel to the front of the foot is often very painful.
Runners will more often have a stress fracture in a bone within the middle of the foot, older adults will more often fracture the 5th metatarsal (Jones fracture) that will be felt on the outside of the foot (along the pinky toe).
3. Psoriatic Arthritis
Foot pain can be a common symptom of psoriatic arthritis, an inflammatory disease that causes pain and swelling in the joints. Psoriatic arthritis is a form of arthritis that can occur in people who have psoriasis. Psoriasis affects over 125 million people worldwide, causing itchy, dry scaly patches that can appear anywhere on the body. Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling are the primary signs and symptoms of psoriatic arthritis. Learn more about the most common symptoms of PsA in this article.
Diabetes can affect our legs’ blood flow and nerve health and especially our feet. Research shows that nearly half of those with diabetes will develop neuropathy or nerve damage. Neuropathy can lead to tingling or numbness and decreased sensations but also burning and shooting pains that can be very debilitating for some.
The changes in sensation due to diabetes make it important for daily inspection of the skin of the calves and feet to look for blisters, open areas, or signs of irritation. Any changes in skin health should be discussed with your primary care doctor immediately.
5. Metataralgia (Ball of the foot pain)
Pain at the ball of the foot can be caused by a direct irritation to one of the joints of the toes (the metatarsal joint). This could be caused by wearing shoes that are too tight in the toes, stepping directly on a stone, or someone stepping right on the joint. It is a localized pain at the joint affected but it can make every step very painful and hard to bear weight, often causing people to limp.
Tendons attach the muscles to the bones. Activities that cause added stress or strain to the tendons which they are not used to can lead to breakdown and inflammation of the tendons. This is most often caused by prolonged walking or standing that is not common for the person; such as walking all day around an amusement park or fair or hiking on rough terrain.
Tendonitis can be painful where the tendon is attached to the bone within the belly of the tendon, and can also lead to tightness within the muscle it is attached to. Tendons run along all the surfaces of the foot and can cause foot pain in many different locations.
Treating foot pain is a combined balance of reducing tissue inflammation, maintaining joint movement, and improving muscle strength. Initially, rest and icing in acute timeframes (initially when the pain started to 3-5 days after it began) are advisable, then increasing stretching and mobility not to let the joint become stiff is important.
Changing shoes can also be an option, modifying activities so there is less static standing, and resting when pain arises are important to not let the tissues progress in inflammation throughout the day.
Using a tennis ball to massage the arch, or a frozen water bottle to roll along the bottom of the foot are options to relieve arch tension and foot pain.
Keeping along on when you have foot pain, how it changes with activity, and how long you have had the pain is important. Prolonged foot pain can lead to increased times of inactivity or avoidance of activity that has a spiraling effect on the rest of the body in terms of strength and balance. Research shows there is a high correlation between foot pain leading to falls, with between 24% to 30% of older adults who have a fall, already having foot pain. Being proactive with foot pain is important for overall physical health and safety. Be sure to talk to your local physical therapist about any foot pain you are having.
*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result. This information is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional. No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.