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Your feet do a lot for you. Their combined 56 bones -- about a quarter of your entire skeleton -- support your body weight every time you stand or take a step. They may pound the ground more than 7,000 times during a four-mile jog. And they suffer in silence, for the most part, when you put on a pair of sexy peep-toe pumps.
In return, we don't do much for our feet. Case in point: 88 percent of women wear shoes that are too small, according to a survey. "We put fashion before comfort, which leads to foot problems and exacerbates preexisting ones or deformities," says Megan Leahy, DPM, a podiatrist at the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute in Chicago. The result is that women are four times more likely to experience foot pain than men are and nine times more likely to develop bunions and to seek help for them and other deformities.
Time takes a toll on our tootsies, too. Beginning in our twenties, the ligaments and tendons lose elastin -- a protein that allows those tissues to bounce back after stretching -- making our feet more prone to pain and injury. And, of course, the years we spend in ill-fitting shoes add up. Even worse, we commit serious foot faux pas by ignoring pain as long as possible.
Take a step in the right direction right now and learn how to bypass the most common pedi complaints.Funky Infections
Your paranoia about picking up nasty bugs in the locker room is totally legit. "The germs that cause infections are everywhere," Dr. Leahy says. The organism that leads to athlete's foot and the virus that gives you warts thrive in moist environments. The sweatier your feet, the higher your risk.
Wear sweat-wicking wool or polypropylene socks and strip them and your sneakers off as soon as your workout is over. Always wash your feet daily, especially between your toes, and dry them thoroughly (you can use a hair dryer), even if you skip the shower. If you notice a circular patch of callused-looking skin on one of your soles -- the sign of a possible wart -- pop a daily multivitamin to strengthen your immunity so that your body has a better shot at fighting off the virus, Dr. Leahy says.
Fight itchy athlete's foot fungus by applying an over-the-counter antifungal cream, such as Lamisil, twice daily for two weeks. Untreated, the organism can make its way under your toenails, causing a painful infection. "Even if the symptoms clear up, continue using the cream for a full month to reach the deepest layers of skin and keep the infection from spreading or coming back," Dr. Leahy recommends.
You inherited Mom's curly locks and Dad's blue eyes. Unfortunately they may have passed something else along: funny-looking feet. Genetics may be at play in as much as 89 percent of certain adult foot disorders, the American College of Rheumatology reported. Common among inherited foot troubles are bunions (your big toes jut out and have a bony bump) and hammertoes (your toes bend up at the joints and down at the ends).
Unfortunately, you can't fight your genes, but you can avoid wearing tight or pointy shoes, which can accelerate and exacerbate these hereditary problems, says Catherine Cheung, DPM, a foot and ankle surgeon in San Francisco.
Surgery is the only real fix for deformities, but "as long as bunions and hammertoes don't cause discomfort, there's no need to operate," says Pedro Cosculluela, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Methodist Center for Orthopaedic Surgery in Houston. If you do have pain, look into getting custom orthotics, which can help lessen it. "Your doctor will make a cast of your feet and create inserts that fit into your shoes to support your unique foot structure," Dr. Cheung explains.
The calf muscle is connected to the heel bone. And your Achilles, the body's biggest tendon, is what links them, Dr. Leahy says. When your calf muscle is tight, it yanks the Achilles one way as the heel pulls it the other, leaving you with painful inflammation, known as tendinitis. While most people have naturally tight calves, teetering in stilettos can make them even more so. In fact, habitually sporting heels that are two inches or higher actually shortens bundles of muscle fibers in the calf by about 13 percent and stiffens the Achilles tendon by about 20 percent, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Wear shoes that give you support. While ballerina flats may seem like a smart choice, their lack of support can cause tugging on your tendons. Avoid the flimsy thin-soled kind in favor of those with more arch support and cushioning. Do the majority of your hoofing around in shoes with a one-inch heel, which place the foot in its optimal position.
Warm up properly and stretch daily to keep your calf muscle supple (see "Flex Your Feet," on the next page) and reduce inflammation, Dr. Cosculluela advises. In addition, take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain meds, like ibuprofen or naproxen; ice the area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time; and avoid exercise until the pain subsides, which typically takes at least six weeks.
Running does wonders for your body, mind, and spirit, but overtraining can spell trouble for your toes. Pain and swelling in the front of your foot is a big red flag that you've been overdoing it and need to take a break for a week or two to heal. Being sidelined is a bummer, but consider the alternative: Powering through the pain could set you up for a stress fracture -- a crack in one of the metatarsal bones at the base of your toes -- that can keep you off your feet and in a protective boot for as long as three months. A stress reaction begins as a dull ache that at first goes away after a period of rest ranging from a few hours to several weeks. Continuing to push through that ache may lead to a stress fracture, which can result in foot pain and swelling that isn't relieved solely with rest. You may also notice warmth and redness where it hurts. "The bones in your feet are accustomed to a certain amount of stress and strain as you walk or run," Dr. Cosculluela explains. "Without giving those bones enough time to adjust and become stronger through a gradual increase in your workouts, they'll eventually snap."
When you start a new exercise program -- especially if you're training for a 10K, a half-marathon, or a marathon -- gradually amp up your routine using the 10 percent rule: Increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent a week to give your body time to handle the increasing physical demands and reduce your risk for injury. Also, play the field rather than getting obsessed with one sport. "Cross-training is beneficial because each activity relies on different bones and tendons in your feet, which helps ward off overuse injuries," says Jonathan Rose, DPM, a podiatrist in Baltimore and a coauthor of The Foot Book: A Complete Guide to Healthy Feet. Finally, check your nutrient intake. If you're falling short on calcium and/or vitamin D (aim for 1,000 milligrams a day of each, from food or supplements), you may be increasing your chance of sustaining fractures.
See your doctor stat, before the problem gets more severe. If he concludes that you have a stress fracture, he will most likely recommend ice, compression with a bandage, or possibly wearing a removable cast boot. Healing may also require time off from working out. Itching to stay active? Ask if you can swim or bike. Non-weight-bearing exercises may be OK, depending on the fracture's location and severity.
If you're in agony the moment you place your feet on the floor in the morning, plantar fasciitis -- pain caused by inflammation in the ligament that runs from the heel bone to the base of the toes -- is probably the culprit. While you were sleeping, your body started to form scar tissue in an attempt to repair strain and inflammation in the area. Placing weight on your feet causes microtears in those scars that can leave you howling. As with stress fractures, plantar fasciitis is likely to occur when you start a new exercise program and attempt to do too much too soon. You're also at a higher risk if you have low arches, because of the tension and strain placed on the fascia with each step, which can lead to inflammation and microtears over time.
Use insoles that cradle your arches. Try brands such as Orthaheel (orthaheelusa.com), PowerStep (powersteps.com), and Superfeet (superfeet.com), all of which have products that fit in many types of shoes.
If a combination of rest, ice, and OTC anti-inflammatory medications doesn't help ease the soreness, make an appointment with a podiatrist. "For patients with heel pain that's above a six on a one-to-10 scale, I often administer a cortisone injection," Dr. Rose says. "The shot delivers medication directly into the injury and immediately reduces swelling." Some doctors believe that the minor trauma of the needle may be what kicks the body's natural healing response into high gear.
Beat pain with these easy moves.
Do three sets of each stretch three times a day -- on waking, in the afternoon, and before bed -- if you have foot pain, says Dr. Rose. Otherwise, do them once daily as a preventive measure.
Standing Stair Stretch
Targets Achilles tendon
Stand on a stair and rise up onto the balls of your feet. Lower heels toward the stair below while squeezing calf muscles. Hold for 30 seconds.
Targets Achilles tendon
Stand facing a wall with hands against it. Step left foot back and right foot closer to wall. Keep left heel flat on floor. Lean hips toward wall and hold for 30 seconds without bouncing. Switch legs and repeat.
Targets Achilles tendon
Start in same position as in the Upper-Calf Stretch. As if you're going to sit down, bend left knee as much as you can while still keeping heel on floor. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
Targets plantar fascia
Sitting on a chair, bring right leg up and rest ankle on left knee. With one hand, gently pull toes toward shin as far as they can go. (You'll feel the stretch on the bottom of foot.) Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
Remove a wart with duct tape.
Some research has shown that this method is effective. Place a small piece of duct tape over the wart and leave it on for six days, replacing it if it falls off. Then peel off the tape, soak your feet in warm water, and file the wart gently with a pumice stone or emery board. Let the area air out for a half day before reapplying new tape. Repeat the process until the wart is gone or see a doctor if it isn't improving. "The tape creates mild irritation, which jump-starts your body's immune system," explains Dr. Leahy.
Fight infections with Lysol.
Spritz it in your running shoes post-workout to kill any fungi or viruses they may be harboring.
Burst a blister with a sewing needle.
Sterilize the needle and the blister with rubbing alcohol, pierce the side of the blister, and then gently press to drain. (Don't pluck off the skin.) If you have a compromised immune system or if the blister is blood filled, which can signal an infection or more serious problem, see your physician, Dr. Leahy says.
How to get height with less hurt.
High heels are bad for your feet and body alignment, so try not to wear them every day. Look for these special features to find the perfect pair.
From left: Banana Republic Laurel Pump ($120, bananarepublic.com), Geox Peonia Sandal ($165, Geox stores), Rockport Janae Dorsay Shoe ($140, rockport.com)
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2012.